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Paul BEN-HAIM (1897-1984)
Evocation for violin and orchestra (1942) [19:18]
Three Songs Without Words for violin and piano (1951) [9:37]
Violin Concerto (1960) [20:58]
Three Studies for solo violin (1981) [6:51]
Berceuse Sfaradite for violin and piano (1945) [3:38]
Toccata from Five Pieces for Piano Op.34, arranged for violin and orchestra by Moshe Zorman [3:19]
Itamar Zorman (violin)
Amy Yang (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Philippe Bach
rec. 2017, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales
BIS BIS2398 SACD [65:00]

Paul Frankenburger was born in Munich in 1897 and after a successful career with the Augsburg Opera fled Nazi Germany to Israel where he changed his surname to “son of Heinrich”, i.e. Ben-Haim.

The CD opens with the title work, Evocation, composed in 1942. It is a sonata-form piece subtitled Poem for Violin and Orchestra, which is dominated by a haunting three-note figure. Stylistically, I am somewhat reminded of Bloch in early romantic mood, and the booklet tends to confirm this by stating it is only at the end of the work that we hear traces of Eastern-European Jewish style. It begins with low strings and harps overlaid by the brass languorously intoning the three-note figure, and it develops via a sting cantilena into an impassioned, flowing Allegro, at the end of which the rhapsodic violin enters. It sings its mournful song, based on the motif, until at the climax the brass become more prominent, impressively blazing it out. We then have a cadenza for the violin. The music calms down. Thematically, we are back to the slow introduction but this time the violin sings at stratospheric highs accompanied by high woodwind and harp in wonderfully diaphanous scoring. The music slowly fades to silence. It is an impressive piece with much contrast within its single movement. And I have very much enjoyed making its acquaintance.

There is only one more work on the disk from the same period as Evocation – the Berceuse Sfaradite from 1945. This is a setting of a Sephardic folk song, which became the composer’s best known and most popular piece when sung by singer Bracha Zefira. Here, it is presented in an arrangement for Violin and Piano, in a style very much reminiscent of some French music of the early 20th Century. It’s a lightweight work, designed for tuneful enjoyment.

The Violin Concerto of 1960 is a very different proposition from Evocation – Ben-Haim’s style had evolved by then to integrate Eastern Jewish musical elements into a Western musical language. It is immediately evident that at that point in his compositional career he had embraced Neo-Classicism and I can hear little resemblance to Bloch here, even in Bloch’s Neo-Classical works. The booklet tells us that the work is composed mostly with Middle Eastern inflexions where Ben-Haim attempts to transfer quarter-tones into the traditional Western twelve tones. For me, the most attractive part is the central Andante affettuoso where the melismatic arabesques have an almost hypnotic effect. The last movement is a dance, quite fiery in its impact, which finishes the work off effectively. The composer’s orchestration is very colourful but I must admit to not being a fan of the Neo-Classical style in general.

The Three Songs Without Words of 1952 rather remind me stylistically of Bloch’s Baal Shem in its violin and piano version, although the deep emotion and melodic strength of the Bloch work exceeds those qualities of the Ben-Haim’s. It illustrates three aspects of daily life in the Middle East: The heat of the midday sun in the Judean hills, the babbling of a Middle Eastern storyteller and a Sephardic tune. I found it to be a most attractive piece.

The late (1981) Three Studies for Solo Violin were composed for Yehudi Menuhin. Ben-Haim was already very ill when he wrote these pieces and the booklet note states that he did not have time or energy to put performance markings in the score. Both outer movements are fast and essentially ornamentation around the main notes of a line. The middle movement is a slow fugue. I found them to be rather dry and uninteresting.

The CD is rounded off with an arrangement for violin and orchestra of a piano toccata. As the booklet says, it is a wild, virtuoso dance that imitates the sound of an Arabic stringed instrument.

This is a dual layer CD/SACD disc that I listened to in stereo via an SACD player. The SACD sound quality is well up to BIS’s exalted standards and very little less when played as a standard CD. The performances are all very fine. The booklet notes, written by the violinist, are in English, German and French, incorporating biographical and music documentation.

Jim Westhead



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