Alberto Hemsi (1898-1975)
Danze nuziali greche, Op 37 bis (1956)
Tre arie antiche, Op 30 (c.1945)
Pilpúl Sonata, Op 27 (1942)
Quintet for viola and string quartet, Op 28 (c.1943)
Méditation, Op 16 (before 1931)
rec. 2021/22, Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto
CHANDOS CHAN20243 
The ARC Ensemble continue their ‘Music in Exile’ exploration. This time they focus on yet another composer whose selection of chamber music has never been recorded, Alberto Hemsi, a Sephardi Jew born in what is present day Turkey in 1898. He was brought up in Jewish schools but, as an Italian citizen – his parents had moved from Livorno – he travelled to study at the Conservatoire in Milan in 1913.
Hemsi is probably best known for his set of Coplas Seferdies, Sephardi songs published in numerous volumes, but his chamber music is well worth getting to know. The earliest piece in this disc is the innocuous-sounding Méditation for cello and piano (Tom Wiebe and Kevin Ahfat), written at some point before 1931, and couched in the ‘Armenian style’. Pianistically it evokes the cimbalom or, as the notes remind us, to be specific, the Greek santouri, a hammered dulcimer. The slow intense dialogue between the two instruments seems almost deliberately imitative of, or a shadowy second cousin of, Bruch’s Kol nidrei. In 1942 he wrote the Pilpúl Sonata for violin and piano (Emily Kruspe and Ahfat). It’s cast in a standard three-movement format and encodes plenty of Sephardic material, not least in the fleet and pithy first movement, and also in the call-and-response central one, a kind of cantorial recitative that takes the violin high in a way somewhat reminiscent of Bloch. There’s fine drama in the driving finale.
The following year – or thereabouts, as dating can’t be sure – Hemsi wrote an intriguing Quintet in G for Viola (Steven Dann) and string quartet. It signals a slight compositional shift in Hemsi’s thinking, being somewhat more conventional in structure and effect. His relish for insouciant dance patterns and folkloric inflexions, though, is most obvious in the Burlesca second movement but the most paradoxical movement is the slow one, a Berceuse, that exudes flowing lyricism which, whilst hardly expressively deep, opens up a channel of lightly flecked impressionism: Hemsi looking backwards and sideways simultaneously. For the finale there’s a Greek dance, bright and brisk and over quickly and triumphantly.
Tre arie antiche (c.1945) are derived from the Coplas Seferdies and are brief three-minute (or so) studies. The first is fast, the central panel more gauzy and withdrawn, and the final piece extremely catchy. Which leaves the 1956 Danze nuziali greche, Op 37 rewritten from piano originals for cello and piano and dedicated in the piano original to Gina Bachauer. These three nuptial dances cover some expressive ground. The first is a fast and exciting panel honouring the mother-in-law, the second is the bride with her slow and expressively ‘sung’ lyricism, thoughtful, tactile and with Semitic cadences, and the final panel is the godfather – loquacious, big-boned, and excitable. It works beautifully for the cello, for which instrument Hemsi clearly had a real affinity.
There are comprehensive, astute notes and an excellently judged recording.
This is another fine reclamation from the ARC Ensemble, some of whose members I’ve mentioned by name but all of whom play with considerable enthusiasm and technical accomplishment.
Previous review: Rob Barnett
Published: November 2, 2022