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Paul BEN-HAIM (1897-1984)
Pan Op. 17 (1931) [15:16]
Pastorale Variée Op. 31b (1945 rev. 1948) [16:57]
Symphony No. 1 (1939-1940) [28:32]
Claudia Barainsky (soprano), John Bradbury (clarinet)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Omer Meir Wellber
Rec. December 2019 and March 2020 at MediaCityUK, Manchester
CHANDOS CHAN20169 [60:45]

It was the fate of the Jewish composers of Weimar Germany to be persecuted by the Nazis, scattered to the four winds or murdered, and then forgotten for a generation after the war. Recording programmes, of which Decca’s Entartete Musik was the best-known but far from the only one, were instrumental in reviving interest in them. Such composers as Zemlinsky, Schreker and Korngold are now frequently performed and recorded, and the tragic group who died in concentration camps, such as Schulhoff, Ullmann, Haas and Krasa have at least been recorded, if less frequently performed. One composer who seems to have dropped out of sight is Paul Ben-Haim, whose story is rather different from those of the others.

He was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich and was having a successful career as an opera conductor and budding composer until he lost his job in 1931. He stayed in Germany until, in 1933, he received a review of one of his works, which said only that the orchestra management should have not permitted the performance of a work by a Jew. This made him decide to emigrate. He moved to Palestine, then under British mandate, changed his surname and later became an Israeli citizen. Although in Europe he had worked firmly within the tradition of Western art music, in Palestine he developed an interest in the local folk music and incorporated aspects of it into his later compositions, within an idiom which may loosely be described as neoclassical. He was the first, though by no means the only, German-Jewish composer to take this route. He helped build up the tradition of Western music in his new homeland and became greatly honoured there.

Here we have three contrasting works. Pan is described as A Symphonic Poem for Soprano and Orchestra and was the composer’s first big orchestral work, coming towards the end of his German period. It sets a poem by Heinrich Lautensack, which describes a dream in which a woman speaks to a man. The first part evokes events on the seashore, including the sound of bells. Then there is an orchestral interlude in which a solo flute in prominent. In the third part the woman remembers submitting to a lover who turns out to be the god Pan. The whole concept and the tripartite structure is very like Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, and indeed the music somewhat resembles it, being at once lush and fastidious, in the impressionist tradition but with some strengthening from Mahler and possibly Zemlinsky. However, it is not pastiche: it has a definite personality and is quite gorgeous, with beautiful themes and a soaring vocal line. It is a real discovery and it is amazing that this is its first recording.

The Pastorale varièe started life as the last movement of a clarinet quintet, composed shortly after the symphony which follows here. Some years later, Ben-Haim arranged the last movement on its own for solo clarinet, string orchestra and harp and renamed it. It is a set of variations on a theme which evokes sunlight and the Mediterranean. The clarinet has a soloistic role in the subsequent variations in a way which suggests improvisation, though the piece is fully scored. The variations are in various moods with a fast one evoking Arab music before a concluding Epilogue in which the main theme reappears. This is a very attractive work.

Finally, we have the first of Ben-Haim’s two symphonies. This was written for the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, the forerunner of the Israel Philharmonic; it was the first symphony written in that country. The composer wrote it in the early years of the war. and acknowledged that the ‘dreadful ravages of diabolical forces’ had left their mark on the work. There are three movements. The first begins with a forceful idea, deriving from the opening of Mahler’s second symphony. which leads to a contrasting songlike second subject. The development has the rhythm of a marching song and, in the recapitulation, the main themes change character. The second movement quotes a traditional Persian-Jewish song. This movement was particularly successful and has occasionally been performed on its own. The finale is a tarantella, but towards the end we hear a new theme which derives from the composer’s last German work, the oratorio Joram. This symphony is very much a wartime work, and we may compare the second and third symphonies of Honegger as comparable. It is as impressive as them.

These performances were recorded in cooperation with the BBC, and the works were played in concert before being recorded. The playing is splendidly assured and Claudia Barainsky shines in Pan, as does John Bradbury in the Pastorale varièe. I should also mention Alex Jakeman, who takes the important flute solo in the interlude in Pan. Omer Meir Wellber seems well inside the idiom and the recording is rich and lustrous, in the Chandos manner.

Pan is a first recording, and that may clinch the matter for many listeners. It is certainly a splendid piece. The other works have been recorded several times, and I was able to compare the symphony performance with that by Israel Yinon and the NDR Radiophilharmonie of Hannover on CPO. Yinon was a great champion of Ben-Haim and other Jewish composers, and he recorded both symphonies. Yet Omer Meir Wellber seems to me at least as good, if not better: there is more punch and pungency to his version, and the recording is better too. All in all, this is a triumph, and I very much hope we can expect more Ben-Haim from this team. As well as the second symphony, there are various concertos and other works. Perhaps I could put in a word for Joram, which the composer apparently always regarded as his magnum opus? Strongly recommended.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Gary Higginson (Recording of the Month)



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