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Paul BEN-HAIM (1897-1984)
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 21 (1937) [28:41]
String Quintet in E minor (1919) [32:56]*
Carmel Quartet; *Shuli Waterman (viola)
rec. Department of Music, Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv, July 2013

Paul Ben-Haim achieved some renown in the mid-twentieth century, primarily for his Jewish-themed orchestral music. I reviewed a program (Cala CACD0551) including his suite From Israel for this site some time ago. Toccata Classics now calls our attention to his under-explored chamber music dating from before Ben-Haim had incorporated Jewish folk styles into his writing. Apparently, the 1919 String Quintet is a first recording.
In the booklet, Yoel Greenberg describes the First String Quartet as representing the composer's "rejection of the German tradition", and the strongest audible influences on the score are, in fact, composers of other nationalities. The first movement's undulating rhythms and fluid textures show a kinship with the Debussy and Ravel quartets, although Ben-Haim favours edgier harmonies. The spiky drive of the scherzo, its momentum uninterrupted even by a lighter-textured episode, suggests Shostakovich; the Trio section becomes a spectral waltz. The slow movement's modal harmonies point once again to the French models, or, perhaps, to Vaughan Williams. The Rondo-Finale alternates lyrical passages with more aggressive outbursts.
In the early String Quintet, on the other hand, Ben-Haim draws freely from mainstream German musical traditions - several of them, in fact. At the start of both outer movements, the quick harmonic shifts, couched in the comparatively sparse quintet textures, suggest Expressionism of the late-Mahler or early-Schoenberg variety; so do the sustained low-register writing and stabbing violin accents at the start of the slow movement. Elsewhere we hear passages of a (Richard) Straussian lushness, notably in the recapitulation and coda of the first movement, and in the gorgeous choralelike theme at 4:30 of the finale. In still other passages - the march episodes in the outer movements, and the little fugue at 6:17 of the finale - the clean rhythmic contours evoke no-nonsense Classical models.
It's an ambitious, big-boned score, cast in just three movements. The first movement seems to sprawl: it isn't overly long at 12:10, but its three lengthy theme-groups aren't easy for the ear to process immediately. Still, its strong forward impulse holds listener focus. In the other two movements, the sequence of the various episodes generates a structural logic of its own.
The firm-bowed, full-toned performances by the Carmel Quartet - joined by violist Shuli Waterman in the quintet - encompass both robust fortes and hushed pianos without losing tonal quality. The instrumental lines coalesce into vibrant, glowing ensemble sonorities without losing their individual character. With vivid recorded sound, it's hard to imagine these pieces being done better.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.