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Ben-Haim strings 8553497
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Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1986)
Concerto for Strings Op 40 (1947)
Pastoral Variée for clarinet, harp and string orchestra Op 31b (1945 arr. 1962)
Three Songs without Words (1952)
Music for Strings (1955/56)
Talia Or (soprano), Bettins Aust (clarinet), Christine Steinbrecher (harp)
Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie/Gabriel Adorján
rec. 2021, Studio 1, Bayerische Rundfunk, Munich
AVI-MUSIC 8553497 [61]

Paul Ben-Haim stands rather apart from the other Jewish composers who were persecuted by the Nazis. He was born in Munich as Paul Frankenburger and had started a promising career when the arrival of the Nazi regime put an abrupt end to it. He moved to Palestine, then under British mandate, changed his name to Paul Ben-Haim and stayed there for the rest of his life, taking Israeli citizenship on the foundation of the state and ending as an honoured leader of musical life in that country. He also took an interest in the local folklore and folksongs, from different traditions, and sometimes drew on them in his compositions. He was reasonably prolific and has been fairly well recorded, but he nevertheless seems to get overlooked, even in surveys of Jewish composers from Germany. So I was particularly pleased to receive this disc for review, as I had been greatly impressed by a recording of his first symphony (review), which I chose as one of my records of the year for 2021.

We have here four works for string orchestra, two of them also involving soloists. The idiom of three of them is neo-classical, somewhere between the Stravinsky of such works as the Dumbarton Oaks concerto, and Martinů, though perhaps without quite his joie de vivre. All the works date from Ben-Haim’s later period, when he felt he had managed a synthesis of Western art music with Oriental influences, though we would nowadays want to express this differently.

We begin with his Concerto for Strings. This is a wholly characteristic work. It is in four movements, all quite short, and neo-baroque in inspiration. The opening movement begins with a sturdy march drawing on a theme which is the composer’s motto theme, a figure in four notes which he had previously used in the most ambitious of the works of his German period, the oratorio Joram. However, it soon moves to other material, some playful and some lyrical. The second movement is lively, with contrasting solo and tutti passages. The third is serene though varied and the finale begins with music reminiscent of the opening. It, also recalls music from the other movements and employs more virtuosic writing.

The Pastorale Variée which follows started life as the last movement of a clarinet quintet. However, the clarinet writing is concertante in style and Ben-Haim later arranged this movement alone for clarinet with harp and string orchestra. In this form it has become one of the most popular of his works, having been recorded several times, and indeed appearing also on the disc I referred to above. There is a theme with five variations and closing sixth, longer than the others and marked Epilogue. These are nicely varied, and the tone is almost throughout cheerful and light, with only the occasional darker note.

The Three Songs without Words (Ben-Haim gave up opus numbers in his later years) are rather different from the other works here in showing a strong influence of the local folk music. Ben Haim described them as ‘tone painting in an Oriental atmosphere.’ He originally wrote them for high voice and piano but later arranged them for various other combinations, including the one for strings here, of which this is the first recording. In this form they sound to me like nothing so much as Ravel’s quasi-Oriental song cycle Shéhérazade. They are similarly gorgeous.

Finaly Music for Strings, which gives its title to the whole disc, is really another concerto-grosso like work, similar to that of the opening Concerto. It is in five movements, and the Joram theme reappears in the opening. The second movement is a fugue, the third lyrical but rhythmically tricksy and the fourth, an Aria, has the most anguished music on the disc. The vigorous finale brings back all the themes and ends with another allusion to the earlier Concerto.

The performances here are led from the leader’s desk by Gabriel Adorján and are neat and precise. The Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie is a well-established chamber orchestra, based in Augsburg, which has made something of a speciality of reviving Jewish composers. The clarinettist Bettina Aust plays sweetly in the Pastoral Variée, But Talia Or, the soprano in the Three Songs without Words, has slightly too wide a vibrato for my taste. The recording is fine and the booklet, on which I have drawn for this review, helpful. Despite my slight reservations about the singer, this is a rewarding disc and I hope to hear more Ben-Haim.

Stephen Barber

Published: October 25, 2022

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