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Joseph ACHRON (1886-1943)
Music for violin and piano
Hebrew Melody, Op.33 (1911) [5:49]
Hebrew Dance, Op.35, No.1 (1912) [7:02]
Hebrew Lullaby, Op.35, No.2 (1912) [3:02]
Prelude, Op.13 (1904) [3:45]
Les Sylphides, Op.18 (1905) [3:54]
Zwei Stimmungen, Op.32 (1910) [6:36]
Zwei Stimmungen, Op.36 (1913) [5:54]
Dance Improvisation on a Hebrew Folk Theme, Op.37 (1914) [3:24]
Suite No.1 en style ancien, Op.21 (1906) [15:11]
La Romanesca (1913) [3:51]
Stempenyu Suite (1930) [6:48]
Second Berceuse, Op.20 (1906) [4:19]
Michael Ludwig (violin), Alison d’Amato (piano)
rec. Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, USA, 6-7 May 2013
NAXOS 8.573240 [69:34]

In his obituary Joseph Achron was described by his friend Arnold Schoenberg as “one of the most underrated modern composers”. Indeed, in the years following his early death, his music fell into obscurity. This was occasioned by various unfortunate circumstances, not least because, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the First World War several of the publishing houses that handled his works were forced out of business. Later as a Jew his music was banned under Hitler and several works disappeared from the catalogue. Finally on his emigration to the USA he discovered that his predilection for writing ‘Jewish music’ with its strains reminiscent of ‘the old country’ were rejected by a population of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who, desperate to assimilate, turned their backs on these musical memories of ‘home’.

Fortunately with the passage of time we can view his music with less prejudice and simply evaluate it for what it is; beautifully melodic music that deserves a hearing. There is no denying that his music is unashamedly ‘romantic’ but there has always been a place for that even if it doesn’t float everyone’s boat.

Joseph Yulyevich Achron was born in what is today the town of Lazdijai, Lithuania, in 1886 and was a child prodigy. His parents hoped he would become a great violinist after he’d composed his first melody aged two on a homemade violin. They moved the family to Warsaw to help his chances. Things like that seemed to happen in those far-off days; either that or the unfortunate child might be born to parents who forbade them entertaining such frivolous ideas. As a ten year old he performed at the Tsar’s brother’s birthday party for which he received a gold watch that he always cherished. Aged 13 he enrolled at the St Petersburg Conservatory and studied violin with Leopold Auer whose students included Heifetz, Efrem Zimbalist, Nathan Milstein and Mischa Elman, and harmony with Anatoly Liadov. Though he always considered himself principally a performer he composed a considerable number of works and Naxos deserves congratulation for lifting the veil that has concealed the forgotten works on this disc.

It is no surprise that one of his most well known pieces is the first on this disc, his Hebrew Melody from 1911. It positively drips nostalgia, a feature that would no doubt turn some people off. However it is an extremely good and effective tune nevertheless. The booklet notes give the background to how it came to be written. There are several of his compositions that use the basic ‘Hebrew’ sound, so well known in Eastern Europe, and the core of which is also found in many other musical cultures of that region. Characterised by a sweetness of tone and a mixture of joy and melancholy these tunes have always found a place among the peoples living in those countries.

A day prior to his graduation from the Conservatory he showed Liadov a Prelude, thought by some to be his Prelude, Op.13 from 1904 (the date fits). Liadov was mightily impressed despite Achron’s daring departure from the rules of counterpoint. The booklet notes describe it as “... a remarkable, deeply passionate work, full of musical drama” and so it is, packing a great deal into less than four minutes. The contrasting themes for each instrument give the violin as hero a sense of isolation wandering around in an anxiously distracted way. His Les Sylphides is a total contrast in mood to the Prelude and there is a school of thought that has it that Achron may have witnessed a private performance of Glazunov’s ballet, written for Diaghilev and put on by Michel Fokine. This may explain why he managed to have his work published before the ballet had its official première.

The event that caused the Hebrew Melody, Op.33 to be written reawakened in Achron an interest in Jewish folklore. He also peppered his compositions with the essence of Jewish music as remembered from his youth. His Dance Improvisation on a Hebrew Folk Theme shows this ability in spades and includes some fanciful markings such as “very flirtatious”, “elegant” and “dreamy”.

For several years prior to this rediscovery of his musical roots his compositions were more or less devoid of Jewish references as shown in his Suite No.1 en style ancien; his No.2 was in the modern style. As the booklet notes explain, this ‘old style’ was still seen through the prism of his ‘modern’ musical view but is, nevertheless, a convincing tribute to the baroque. Another of his interests I learned from the well written and comprehensive notes was that Achron very much enjoyed setting himself the task of transcribing other composers’ works, some 30 by at least 15 composers varying widely from Rameau and Vivaldi to Liszt and Stephen Foster. One such is his piece La Romanesca an anonymous 16th century Spanish dance tune in which, after setting the tune out in a straightforward enough way, he subjects it to a thorough reworking. He demonstrates that transcription fully deserves being viewed as an art form in its own right — as genuine a part of the creative process as any other.

There is intriguing speculation that his Stempenyu Suite was the inspiration behind Marc Chagall’s famous painting of a fiddler on the roof. Certainly it is a brilliant evocation of the klezmer violinist in Sholem Aleichem’s story. The music was composed for a production of the story for a Yiddish Theatre in New York.

Achron’s Second Berceuse is a genuine lullaby with its gentle rocking motion. It differs from many other composers’ versions that either evoked lively and joyful babes or tragic ones.

When he arrived in the USA to live for the rest of his life he was surprised to discover that he was thought of as a composer rather than a violinist. This must have been a shock for someone who had only recently toured Russia, Europe and the Middle East as a violinist performing in over a thousand concerts in five years.

Having fallen into obscurity for so many years it is a pleasure to know that his music is being rediscovered and programmed in concerts and festivals and that a Joseph Achron Society was founded in 2010 to help in that process. On the evidence of this disc it is a process that should be successful and the release of his First Violin Concerto (Naxos 8.559408) will surely help it all along.

Both musicians here record deliver committed performances of some really lovely tunefully melodic music of great charm.

Steve Arloff