Bis Recordings Takes on Ben-Haim


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Israeli composers are too little known so this album of the music of Paul Ben-Haim is particularly welcome.  BIS records is known for its quality recordings and its attention to neglected repertoire.  Hopefully this is only the first release and BIS will go on to record more of this man’s work as they have with so many other neglected masters.

Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich.  He moved to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1933 as the Nazis took power.  He has become known, for better or worse, as the Israeli Aaron Copland.  Indeed there are parallels between the two composers in terms of their embrace of mid-twentieth century romanticism and, to some degree, nationalism.  He worked as an assistant to Bruno Walter at one point.

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Portrait of Paul Ben-Haim from Wikipedia

A quick glance at Wikipedia will reveal that he mentored many composers including Ben Zion-Orgad, Zvi Avni, Eliahu Inbal, Henri Lazarof, Shulamit Ran, and Ami Maayani among many others.  Leonard Bernstein recorded Ben-Haim’s “Sweet Psalmist of Israel” and was supportive of the composer’s work.  He was very influential during his lifetime and the neglect of his work is hard to fathom.

Much of Ben-Haim’s work has been recorded to be sure but it tends to get little airplay and few concert performances.  As is true for many countries it is difficult to get music by Israeli composers in the United States (Is this true in other countries?).  This release from the Swedish based BIS records with its distribution network may be a partial remedy to that problem.

The Violin Concerto of 1960 is the big work here.  It has been recorded previously, most notably by the wonderful Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman.  It is filled out with his 1942 Evocation “Yizkor” for violin and orchestra and some chamber pieces, the Three Songs Without Words (1951) and Berceuse Sfaradite (1945) both for violin and piano.  In addition there is an arrangement for violin and piano of the composer’s well known Toccata (1943) for piano.  And in keeping with the violin theme the world premiere recording of his Three Studies (1981) for solo violin rounds out this wonderful survey of the composer’s work.

Itamar Zorman is the soloist and this, not his first release, is a major statement in his career.  Zorman previously released a violin and piano album with more conventional repertoire but this is his first release playing with an orchestra.  Having demonstrated his facility with the conventional repertoire he seems to be blazing a path beyond.

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Portrait of the Artist from his website

The album opens with the highly romantic Evocation “Yizkor” (1942) reflecting the composer’s style as developed in his native Germany.  The disc basically follows the order of composition except for the last two tracks.  This gives some sense of the composer’s evolution over his substantial career and the album includes the composer’s last work.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is ably conducted by Philippe Bach in the Evocation and the Concerto and Amy Yang is the very busy accompanist in the violin and piano pieces.  Mr. Zorman himself contributed the lucid liner notes.

Having just reviewed another fine album which included a Ben-Haim piece it was particularly delightful to receive this recording.  It brings this important music to a new generation of listeners.  Also toward that goal the following link will take the interested reader to a comprehensive list of the the recordings of this composer’s work.  The link is here.

 

 

Lara Downes’ Bernstein Tribute


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Lara Downes is one of the finest pianists working today.  Her virtuosity and interpretive skills are well established.  She is well versed in the standard repertoire of classical piano music but has chosen to blaze her own unique path in her recorded legacy.  Here she pays homage in her own unique manner with help from some interesting fellow musicians.

The album consists of 29 tracks none of which lasts more than 4 minutes.  Many are by Bernstein including a generous selection of his Anniversaries, each dedicated to a particular person. Some were written in celebration, some in memoriam. Time marches on and we now celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lenny’s birth. So, of course, all these tracks are in memoriam now. In addition to the all too seldom heard Anniversaries there are a few song transcriptions and a nice selection of Anniversary like pieces contributed for this album by a delightful selection of composers including John Corigliano, Lukas Foss, Michael Abels, Ned Rorem, Ricky Ian Gordon, Eleanor Sandresky, Shulamit Ran, Stephen Schwartz, Marc Blitzstein, Theo Bleckmann, and Craig Urquhart.

This album is (thankfully) not a greatest hits collection but rather, as it’s subtitle says, an intimate tribute by people who were affected by Bernstein in one way or another. Bernstein cut a wide swath of influence embracing new music, mastering the established western classical canon, and embracing jazz, blues, and musical theater much like Ms. Downes actually.

Most of the album is solo piano where Downes casts a loving and magical spell. A few judiciously chosen tracks feature banjo virtuoso Rhiannon Giddens, baritone Thomas Hampton, and two musicians unknown to this writer, Javier Morales-Martinez and Kevin “K.D.” Olusola.

My first listen to this album was an uninterrupted one while driving South from San Francisco. The impression was one of Bernstein’s multiple voices being present seamlessly in every track. Only later reading the liner notes did I become aware that some tracks were written by others.

This is an intimate celebration in honor of a musician who touched so many lives.  Many of the artists on this recording knew Bernstein to some degree but the point here is that Bernstein’s art is so pervasive that few can say they have not been touched by it to some degree.  This listener was brought to nostalgic tears a few times.

In keeping with Downes’ eclectic style this is an unusual selection of pieces, most by Bernstein but all imbued with his spirit, a combination of classical sensibilities with a real feel for jazz, blues and the American musical theater.  This disc contains most, if not all of Bernstein’s “Anniversaries”, short piano pieces written variously in honor of or in memory of many of his friends.  Other pieces are by contemporaries of Bernstein and some were written for this recording.  Add to that a few interludes such as Thomas Hampson coming in to sing, “A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s “Mass”, K.D. Olusola riffing on the familiar “Something’s Coming” which opens the disc, Javier Morales-Martinez spicing up “Cool” from “West Side Story” with his clarinet and Rhiannon Giddens sounding so pretty on the track of that title.

This is a love fest and it, appropriately, covers generations much as Lenny affected so many generations whether through his wonderful work as a conductor or his classic musicals and operas that are indeed the American grain incarnate.  And Lenny was also a teacher to children and to adults.  From the Young Peoples Concerts to the Harvard Norton Lectures he thought deeply and taught and stimulated ideas.  Generations have been forever changed by him.

The bulk of this recording depends on Lara Downes amazing virtuosity bringing these brief little poems to life most convincingly and almost magically.  She clearly has a real feel for this music.  This is mostly not the familiar Bernstein that everyone knows.  It is a portrait such as listeners familiar with Downes’ work will recognize, eclectic, intelligent, sometimes nostalgic, a little obscure, frequently virtuosic, and ultimately satisfying.  The disc lists the performers as, “Lara Downes and friends” and that is the feeling of not just the performers but also of the composers whose heartfelt contributions fit so well in this eclectic mix.

This disc represents Downes’ debut on Sony and the only thing this writer can say to that is, “What took them so long?”  Brava!  And cheers to Lenny on his 100th.