Classical CD Reviews

PAUL BEN-HAIM: ‘Chamber Works’ = Piano Quartet; Two Landscapes for viola and piano; Canzonetta; Improvisation and Dance for violin and piano; Quintet for clarinet and string quartet – ARC Ens. – Chandos

This important new series is off to a great start with this composer you should know.

Published on July 10, 2013

PAUL BEN-HAIM: ‘Chamber Works’ = Piano Quartet; Two Landscapes for viola and piano; Canzonetta; Improvisation and Dance for violin and piano; Quintet for clarinet and string quartet – ARC Ens. – Chandos CHAN 10769, 77:05 (6/25/13) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) has been one of Canada’s most vital ensembles for over ten years, specializing in important if not lesser known classical repertory. This disc, featuring the music of Paul Ben-Haim, is the first in a planned series, Music in Exile, highlighting music by composers who had to flee Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany. [Similar to Decca’s Entartete series...Ed.] If the other recordings live up to that of this first installation, I cannot wait for the others.

Paul Ben-Haim was actually born Paul Frankenburger. Like many German-born Jews, Frankenburger actually served during World War I, narrowly avoiding death (unlike his brother) but ended up emigrating to Palestine in 1933. He adopted his father’s Hebrew name “Haim” (Heinrich) and quickly embraced the natural beauty and cultural template of traditional Levantine and Sephardic music. Virtually all of his music since the relocation is infused with these traditional melodies and sounds and exude Ben-Haim’s love for his newly-embraced heritage.

I actually first became aware of the music of Paul Ben-Haim with his Pastorale Variee for clarinet, harp and strings. This piece is actually the composer’s Opus 31b, based on the shepherd-like melody that serves as the theme for the theme and variations in the final movement of the Clarinet Quintet, Op. 31a, heard here. I have played both these pieces more than twice and I love these works. The melody in the scherzo movement is written around a literal quotation of the Hebrew hymn “Elohei Tzidki” (‘God of my Righteousness’). This work turned me into a lover of Ben-Haim’s music and both the Quintet and the subsequent Pastoral Variations have never quite made it into the standard repertoire for clarinet performance students; but they should. Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and the ARC strings convince us of this work’s beauty and vitality.

Similarly, the Piano Quartet is a lovely and dramatic work, stemming from the composer’s days in Munich under his legal name, Paul Frankenburger. This big, impressive work owes a lot to the German styles of R. Strauss or Reger. Ironically, this piece was not played by anyone since its premiere in 1932. In part, Ben-Haim chose to suppress his own music written in Germany and in his pre-Jewish cultural identity. Whether this was due to denial, fear, unnecessary embarrassment we can never know but the ARC found the autograph edition in the Israel National Library and edited it for performance. This is a bold and compelling work from a then twenty-four-year-old composer and should be heard more. Pianist David Louie with ARC string artists Benjamin Bowman, violin, Steven Dann, viola and Bryan Epperson, cello play wonderfully and convincingly.

The remaining three works on this disc are of much smaller scale but are no less intriguing. The Canzonetta for solo piano, performed stylishly by Dianne Werner, is a light work, number four of the composer’s Five Pieces for piano, and has hints of the same shepherd’s tune heard in the clarinet works. Essentially, this work is in line with Mendelssohn and other composers of the “song without words” form.

Two Landscapes for viola and piano is written in clear homage to Hebrew music; the first movement being ‘The Hills of Judea’ and the second having a great deal of dance element. This work was one of Ben-Haim’s to be composed in what is now Israel. Improvisation and Dance for violin and piano from 1939 lives in the same world as the Landscapes. The solo violin plays many chant-like melismatic riffs before giving way to the Dance, said to be of Yemeni origin. The performers herein, Steven Dann, viola, Erika Raum, violin and Dianne Werner, piano, all perform wonderfully.

Paul Ben-Haim may be one of the few, and certainly one of the finest, composers to have emigrated, under an element of duress, from pre-World War II Germany, to have completely recreated himself in his native culture. His music is so clearly and beautifully Jewish but is, much more importantly, excellent, well-written and compelling. I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying this music and, if – like me – any one of these or all of these is your first exposure to the music of Paul Ben-Haim, you will no doubt want to hear more.

Kudos to the ARC ensemble and I look forward to more in this important series.

—Daniel Coombs




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