Another jewel from ASV's glorious crown, this recording brings together three Violin Concertos written by Israeli composers, two of which are world premiere recordings. This was one of those recordings that I couldn't wait to get my hands and ears on; this insatiable appetite is applicable to every recording acquisition of course, however I had read a raving pre-release (as in 6 months) review in the Journal for Jewish and Israeli composers (I cannot recall the precise name, I might be off by a word or two) and thus my 'normal' excitement level was amplified through the roof. I was already fond of Ben-Haim, had but one disc of music by Noam Sheriff (the first recording of his "Revival of the Dead" or "Mechaye Hamethim") which was already ridiculously out of print, and had never heard of Oded Zehavi. So for me this was something of a 'Cannes Film (errm music) Festival' for one ;) This disc excited and delighted me 17 years ago and it continues to do so with no interest lost whatsoever.
The three concertos in this recording offer a fascinating picture of the stylistic development of music in modern Israel, from the Mediterranean style of its pioneers to the Arab-Jewish synthesis of the young postmoderns. Certainly Israel's melting pot of ethnic traditions has offered artists a rich resource for creative inspiration, while their broader internationalist concerns also locates Israeli music at the cutting edge of musical aesthetics since the late 20th century. Remarkably the three featured composers represent a unique teacher-pupil chain of tradition, the significance of which may perhaps be detected in the exciting originality of their violin concertos.
Paul Ben-Haim's (1897-1984) Violin Concerto exemplifies Israel's "Mediterranean Style" with its emphasis on melismatic lyricism and 'orientalism', rather than Austro-Germanic modernist harmony. In his native Germany, Ben-Haim (then Paul Frankenburger) had been a successful composer and conductor, assistant to Bruno Walter and Knappertsbusch in Munich, until the rise of the Nazi regime in 1933 forced his emigration to Palestine. His prolific output of compositions in all genres, many on Jewish themes, has since won him international acclaim. The Violin Concerto (1960) was one of three concerti of the early 1960s, for piano, violin and cello, which combined virtuosity with an inspired balance of lyrical, dance, and traditional Jewish elements. Of its American premiere in 1962 by Zvi Zeitlin with the IPO, Alfred Frankenstein, critic of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: "It is wonderfully written for the violin as a lyric and virtuoso instrument; it weaves the solo line in and out of a symphonic whole with masterly effect; and it uses a few orientalisms with the utmost tact and elegance."
The sonata-form first movement begins with a march-like orchestral first subject, with the soloist making an almost improvisatory entrance. After a dramatic climax a gentler second theme appears in the woodwinds, repeated tenderly by the soloist. Lively development of both subjects ensues until a trumpet fanfare announces the recapitulation, the bold march theme now shared by between orchestra soloist. An unexpected drum beat interrupts however, and and impels a rhapsodic solo cadenza, before the exhilarating conclusion. The expressive heart is the tripartite slow movement, whose melismatic 'oriental' theme introduced by flute and cor anglais is eloquently echoed by the solo violin, and subsequently transformed in the more dramatic central interlude. Here, over rumbling basses and ominous brass fanfares, the violin's soliloquy soars ever higher, until the earlier mood of calm reverie resumes with freshly luminescent orchestration. A solo cadenza introduces the effervescent finale, a rondo-like form based on a simple folkish motif, at first propelled by both orchestra and soloist with Bartokian rhythmic energy. Momentum unexpectedly ceases, on a sustained high note, to introduce a beguiling slow theme, first on flute and horn, then repeated by the soloist with exotic colors-it is none other than the same motif slowed down. At the end of the movement there is a reminiscence of the Concerto's first march-like theme leading to a thrilling climax. An absolute knockout of a concerto!!!
Influenced by both his teachers (Paul Ben-Haim and Boris Blacher) in Germany, Noam Sheriff, one of Israel's leading composers of the senior generation, has created a more modernist synthesis of East and West, in which the rich blend of oriental and Eastern-European Jewish features combine with the harmonic richness of Berg, Strauss, as well as Stravinsky. Born in 1935 in Tel-Aviv, where he is currently Professor at the Rubin Academy, the Music Director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra since 2002 and nominated Music Director of the New Haifa Symphony Orchestra in 2004, Noam Sheriff first won international recognition for his "Festival Prelude", premiered by Leonard Bernstein and the IPO in 1957. Since then he has composed many major abstract works as well as several which explore the multicultural aspect of Jewish identity in Israel (the monumental oratorio I mentioned earlier, "Mechaye Hamethim" from 1985 is a great example) including "A Sephardic Passion" (1992), "Akedah" (1997), "Gomel Le'ish Hassid" for bass clarinet and orchestra (1997) and the Violin Concerto (1986) on this disc.
The concerto is unusually programatic in its symbolic journey through different historical times and places of the Jewish Diaspora. In the first movement the introductory soliloquy presents an expressive motif, cantorial in its simple intervallic contour. This is developed in colorful dialogs between solo it and orchestra, with two large-scale climaxes each followed by two more reflective, lyrical sections, with the violin's rhapsodies soaring soaring over ravishing harmony. As a contrast to such Germanic tendencies the exuberant second movement, with its piquant Stravinskian neo-classicism, has an Eastern flavor (that of Russian folk music and also Yemenite Jewish music) evident in the duet for violin and percussion that precedes a cataclysmic climax and conclusion. A synthesis is effected in the moving finale, whose main theme is drawn from a traditional oriental Sephardi setting of the Kol Nidre prayer (of the 'Day of Atonement') which is developed by both the evocatively-colored orchestra and the soloist in complex, lyrical dialogs. It is interrupted twice by a solemn rhythmic beat, a dirge above which the soloist soars like a spirit rising to the heavens, the second time accompanied by delicate woodwind. The movement ends in a contemplative mood, the motif stated in both major and minor modes by the soloist before the finale chord.
A more optimistic, even daring stylistic diversity is evident in the Violin Concerto of Oded Zehavi, who is clearly one of the outstanding composers of the younger generation of Israeli composers. This concerto (and composer!) was in particular a really nice surprise, and becomes more rewarding upon each listen still for me. Zehavi, born in 1961, pursued advanced musical studies in the States, and studied with George Crumb and Andre Hajdu, and since that time he has held posts as composer-in-residence to the Haifa Symphony Orchestra and to the Israel Chamber Orchestra. In 1995 he became Professor of Compisition and Head of Music at Haifa University. Zehavi's pivotal work "L.H.M., Israeli War Requiem" (1991) was acclaimed as "a moment of truth in Israeli music...universal" won several national awards. In 1995 he was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize for composition, as well as a Barlow Foundation Commission (U.S.) for "Rainbow for Children's Choir", a medium for which he has since achieved international recognition. His "Elmale" premiered by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Opera Orchestra in Aqaba, Jordan in 1997, has the distinction of being the first Israeli orchestral work to have been performed in an Arabic country. Zehavi is equally at home in pop, stage, and film music, working with major Israeli dance and film companies as well as tv documentaries for the BBC, ABC and Canal Plus of France.
The stimulation post-modern amalgam of styles in the Violin Concerto, commissioned by Michael Guttman in 1998, includes Jewish, Arabic and Western musics, as well as as a symbiosis of atonal, tonal and modal idioms. The largely atonal first movement begins with a seething orchestral heterophony (reminding me of the music of Kamran Ince and also Jose Evangelista, a fascinating and way too obscure Canadian composer) into which the violin interweaves its lyrical dialog with various orchestral sections, like a conversation in which characters join and leave at random. A dramatic appearance of chime bells signals signals the soloist's expressive cadenza, and the chimes return once more at the conclusion. The symbolism of the chimes derives from the composer's personal recollection of the poignant effect of a tolling church bell cutting through desolation of a Christian village in war-torn Lebanon. The beautifully simple yet affecting harmony lullaby too was personally motivated, composed soon after the birth of Zehavi's daughter. Its tender lullaby theme in A minor is introduced by horn and imitated and developed by the solo violin, over a delicate texture of low string arpeggios, leading to an impassioned climax. Described by the composer as an "oriental wedding with visitors from Central Europe", the high-spirited finale (the opening reminds me of the start of the finale from Peggy Glanville Hick's "Estruscan Concerto", posted early on my blog) presents a delightful, frothy interplay between the orchestra's oriental modal dance theme and the violin's atonal dodecaphonic transformation; a witty, and optimistic combination which concludes with panache.