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Paul BEN-HAIM (1897-1984)
Piano Quartet, Op. 4 (1920-21) [29:19]
Two Landscapes, Op. 27 (1939) [8:43]
Canzonetta, Op. 34 No. 4 (1944) [2:50]
Improvisation and Dance, Op. 30 for Violin and Piano (1939) [8:19]
Quintet, Op. 31a for Clarinet and String Quartet (1941, revised 1965) [27:21]
ARC Ensemble (Joaquin Valdepeńas (clarinet); Marie Bérard (violin); Benjamin Bowman (violin); Erika Raum (violin); Steven Dann (viola); Bryan Epperson (cello); David Louie (piano); Dianne Werner (piano)
rec. 14-16 January 2013, Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
CHANDOS CHAN 10769 [77:05]

According to the informative sleeve-notes by Simon Wynberg, Ben-Haim was ‘one of the untold number of European émigrés whose lives were transformed by Hitler’s Reich. But unlike the German Jews who struggled to redefine themselves in a foreign language and an unfamiliar culture, Ben-Haim quickly embraced his new life in Palestine (now Israel) and made it his own’. In fact he left a prosperous family-life in Germany, and eventually took Israeli nationality. He was born Paul Frankenburger, fashioning his eventual surname from his prominent lawyer-father, Heinrich or ‘Haim’.

The note continues: ‘The relocation, in October 1933, exposed him to a wide variety of Levantine musical dialects, as well as Sephardic and cantorial music, which he integrated into a language the origins of which were essentially central-European. These disparate influences were absorbed, rather than collected and studied as a national heritage as in the case of the Hungarians Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók’.

Chandos have released the CD under the ‘Music in Exile’ banner – ARC Ensemble’s acclaimed series which revives the music of the émigré composers of the 1930s. While it would not be essential to have the above biographical background to hand, simply in order to appreciate this otherwise enjoyable and captivating programme, it does very much put the composer’s oeuvre into perspective, given that his may not be a name familiar to many.

Munich-born Frankenburger completed the Piano Quartet, Op. 4 in his home city in 1921, long before any thoughts of subsequent emigration entered his mind. Despite the real quality of this clearly youthful work – the composer was 24 – it had not been played since a broadcast in 1932. This was until the ARC Ensemble performed it in late 2012. Not surprisingly it is deep-rooted in the music of Brahms and Strauss, with elements of Reger and even Fauré in the mix. From the bold opening of this substantial three-movement composition, characterized by numerous tempo changes within each section, there is a real feeling of strength and thematic direction. To sample the overt, expansively-Romantic style, sit back and enjoy an early musical climax, just before the six minute mark in the opening Allegro.

The remainder of the works recorded here were written after the composer had left Germany. Even in the first of the Two Landscapes, Op. 27, Ben-Haim’s newly-adapted musical language can be heard, especially in the first of the set, ‘The Hills of Judea’, where impressionistic textures merge with Hebraic recitative.

The Improvisation and Dance, Op. 30, tends to make a greater feature of melismatic elements, where, in singing, one syllable would be sung to a number of notes, like an extended ‘Alleluia’. This feature was hinted at in the Two Landscapes. While in the present piece the character is decidedly Yemeni, the Dance emerges as a composite of influences. Both pieces, in fact, cast a glance towards the style of Bartók or Enescu, though fully imbued with Ben-Haim’s distinct manner of lyrical writing. The Canzonetta, on the other hand – the fourth of Ben-Haim’s ‘Five Pieces for Piano’ – is more a direct descendant of the nineteenth-century’s ‘Song without Words’, as exemplified so perfectly by Mendelssohn.

If any of the works on this CD realise the successful combination of West and East, then the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 31a achieves this so perfectly. Indeed, the composer himself wrote: ‘I was very satisfied because I felt that I had at last succeeded in consolidating a new style’. Ben-Haim draws on the quintessential European technique of thematic transformation, for example where the main theme of the scherzo is related to the principal violin theme of the first movement. In his finale – just as in Mozart’s and Brahms’s works in the same genre – he adopts theme and variations form, although here the musical structure is explored, rather than merely offering a vehicle for virtuosic display per se. The composer’s biographer, Jehoash Hirshberg, has pointed out that the ‘Capriccio’ – which functions as the work’s scherzo – is a complete quotation of a traditional Jewish hymn. Whereas the likes of Swiss-born American composer, Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) suggest more the spirit of Jewish prayer and sacrament, Ben-Haim is concerned with the world of dance and outdoor celebration. In the Clarinet Quintet, there is definitely more than just a hint of Klezmer-influenced improvisation.

The ARC Ensemble (Artists of The Royal Conservatory) has quickly become one of Canada’s leading ensembles, and, in fact, cultural ambassadors. Performances here – both individual and collective – are superb, and faithfully recorded.

This outstanding CD simply begs to be included in any collection, whether you have a particular interest in music of this period from displaced composers, or simply are looking for something different from a less well-known composer. In this investigation of chamber works by Paul Ben-Haim, you should certainly not be disappointed on either count.

Philip R Buttall
Previous review: Gary Higginson