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Hyperion Records

CDA67571 - Bloch & Ben-Haïm: Violin Music
CDA67571

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Eric Wen
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: February 2007
DISCID: 1E116D13
Total duration: 73 minutes 57 seconds

BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE CHOICE

'Both composers are served extremely well on this beautifully recorded disc, Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez in particular giving a totally convincing performance of Bloch's well-known Baal Shem … The overall impact is all the more powerful for the sure sense of pacing both artists demonstrate through the recital' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Such a fine soloist as Hagai Shaham … The Baal Shem Suite … receives an excellent performance. Shaham projects the ectsasy of the climaxes marvellously, underpinned by evocative fanfares from Arnon Erez's piano … This remains a fine release of worthwhile and relatively neglected repertoire' (International Record Review)

'Shaham's fiddle weeps with an expressive rich, dark tone, especially in the Nigun movement…' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Hagai Shaham possesses the ideal kind of silver-toned, narrow-vibratoed purity to make these occasionally melodramatic pieces ring true. Rather than fall back on a well-upholstered, opulent sound, he streamlines his tone, adding a special kind of intensity to Bloch's soaring climaxes. Shaham strikes just the right balance between interpretative cool and swashbuckling bravado in Baal Shem … the recording is excellent throughout' (The Strad)

'The vibrancy of Hagai Shaham’s tone and his willingness to engage in expressive devices, apparent from the first notes of Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem, promises visceral performances of commanding penetration. That the tone, however refined, also possesses a sprinkling of grit hardly detracts from the strong-mindedness of his readings … Hagai Shaham sounds as much at home in this kind of ethnic material as in the hushed sections of the second movement or in the bold, virtuosic gestures of the third. By contrast with the Solo Sonata, Ben-Haïm’s two pieces for violin and piano present contrasting faces of romanticism, the Berceuse sfaradite, a rich melodious outpouring, and the Improvisation and Dance, a flamboyant showpiece. Those drawn in any way to these composers should find Shaham’s advocacy convincing. Strongly recommended, however, to all kinds of listeners' (Fanfare, USA)

'Shaham reveals a penetrating intensity, exalted and colorful at once' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

'These [performances] are truly inspiring. Shaham is unafraid of liquid, quick portamenti in the Baal Shem Suite and he is at pains to balance Hebraic fervour with high lying lyricism. The harp-like ripple of the second movement is a testament to Erez’s involving and colour-conscious playing. Shaham intelligently varies his tone here – this is not an understated Nigun but it is one that says a lot without saying too much. The joyous buoyancy and culminatory exultation of the finale show how adept the duo has been throughout – they pace the suite extremely well … The playing is insightful, expressive, and thoroughly idiomatic. These two musicians make an articulate and important statement about both composers’ work' (MusicWeb International)

'Performances are simply electrifying, and the relentless tension that they create is almost unbearable. A vividly recorded and superbly documented disc all round' (Classical.net)

'Les interprètes abordent ces deux compositeurs avec la ferveur à la fois distanciée et fiévruese qu'ils mettaient au service de Grieg. Ils imposent une grande liberté rhapsodique, mais sans rien de maniéré. Le son de Hagai Shaham est puissant, à la fois bourru et attendri' (Le Monde de la Musique, France)

Hagai Shaham complète l'intégrale des oeuvres pour violon et piano de Bloch, commencée avec succès il y a deux ans. On retrouve dans le Bal Shem dans la Suite hébräique et dans les deux très rares Suites pour le violin seul, les mêmes qualités que dans les ouvrages déjà gravés: archet conquérant, superbe sonorité, phrasés élégants et intelligemment pensés donnant à l'interprétation sensualité ou spiritualité. Les trois oeuvres de Ben-Haïm—Sonate pour violin seul, Bercuese sfaradite et Improvisation et Dance —bénéficent également d'une lecture de tout premier plan … Toujours exemplaire, Anon Erez au piano, anticipe toutes les intentions de son partenaire' (Classica, France)

Bloch & Ben-Haïm: Violin Music
Vidui  [3'10]
Nigun  [6'29]
Simchas Torah  [4'46]
Rapsodie  [5'51]
Processional  [2'10]
Affirmation  [3'30]
Prelude  [2'43]
Allegro energico  [2'40]
Energico, deciso  [2'52]
Moderato  [2'26]
Andante  [3'03]
Allegro molto  [2'54]
Allegro energico  [5'43]
Molto allegro  [3'46]

‘Mix Bartók, Debussy and a dash of Lisztian bravado and you’ll get something very close to Bloch’s folksong-inflected, post-Romantic sound-world. Intoxicating performances guaranteed to set the pulse racing’ is what BBC Music Magazine said in its review of Hagai Shaham’s first disc of Bloch’s music for violin and piano on CDA67439. With this new release Hagai completes his survey and adds further delights such as Bloch’s suites for solo violin and music by Israeli-born composer, Paul Ben-Haïm.

The Baal Shem Suite, composed in 1923, is unmistakably Bloch, and is his best-known work for violin and piano. It was inspired by Israel Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth-century founder of modern Hassidism, a mystical movement that arose in Eastern Europe as a reaction against traditional Jewish Orthodoxy, and which placed great emphasis upon song, dance and ecstasy as channels for direct communication with God. Bloch recreates the feeling of ecstatic religious chanting and spiritual intensity with his use of deeply emotional Jewish-tinged melodies, gutsy rhythms and powerful dynamics. Its second movement, Nigun, is in itself a self-standing solo work: a popular choice in standard violin repertoire and with Grade 8 students.

As the centrepiece of this disc we have Bloch’s suites for solo violin. Commissioned by—and dedicated to—Yehudi Menuhin, these short works are latter-day Bach Partitas and elaborate exercises in contrapuntal technique: full of passion, virtuosity and rhythmic dynamism.

Paul Ben-Haïm’s most popular work recorded here is the beautiful lullaby Berceuse sfaradite; the violin’s sensuous lilting melody is repeated in different registers and you can almost picture a balmy Eastern Mediterranean evening.

Hagai Shaham’s thrilling virtuosity and lustrous tone are perfectly suited to these vibrant and passionate works.


Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Ernest Bloch was born in Geneva in 1880 and died in Portland, Oregon, in 1959. Some thirty of his hundred compositions were unpublished œuvres de jeunesse (1895–1900). The remaining seventy mature works fall into four broad periods: the first European period (1901–16), culminating in the ‘Jewish Cycle’ (1912–16); works written successively in New York, Cleveland, and San Francisco (1917–30); the second European period (1930–38); and finally, the American West Coast period (1939–59). Bloch started learning the violin as a child with teachers in his native Geneva and later with Eugène Ysaÿe in Brussels. His early promise was such that he might well have become a professional violinist, had not Ysaÿe encouraged him in the direction of composition.

Of the four suites that comprise the first part of this recording, two are Jewish works that were written after the ‘Jewish Cycle’, and two represent an entirely contrasting facet of Bloch’s art: his passion and reverence for the Baroque period, especially the music of J S Bach. In respect of Baal Shem and Suite hébraïque, the notes which follow focus less on musical analysis and more on Jewish context and content.

Bloch composed his suite Baal Shem (subtitled Three Pictures of Chassidic Life) in 1923. The work, dedicated to the memory of his mother Sophie who had died two years earlier, was inspired by two charismatic personalities. First of all, Israel ben Eliezer of Miedziboz, Poland (c1698–c1759), better known as Israel Baal Shem Tov (which translates from Hebrew as ‘Master of the Good Name’), the founder of modern Hassidism. This was a mystical movement that arose in Eastern Europe as a reaction against the perceived Rabbinical intellectualism of traditional Jewish Orthodoxy in the eighteenth century, and which placed great emphasis upon song, dance and ecstasy as channels for direct communication with God. Although Bloch came from a Western European Jewish background, he was deeply moved by a Hassidic Sabbath service that he had been invited to attend on New York’s Lower East Side in 1918. This was to have far-reaching effects on his direction as a composer. His second source of inspiration was the celebrated Swiss violinist André de Ribaupierre (1893–1955), who—during the gestation period of the suite—visited the Cleveland Institute of Music, which Bloch had founded in 1920 and which he directed until his move to the San Francisco Conservatoire in 1925. Ribaupierre gave the first public performance of the complete suite at a concert organized by the ‘Council of Jewish Women’ at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Cleveland on 6 February 1924. (An orchestral version was produced by the composer in 1939.)

The first movement, entitled Vidui (‘Contrition’), was originally named ‘Meditation’. It is a wordless prayer of repentance, concluding with a typical cadence in the traditional Eastern Ashkenazi Ahava Rabba mode, known more colloquially as Freigish.

The centrepiece of the suite is probably the best known among Bloch’s compositions for violin and piano and has retained its place in the standard repertoire as a self-standing solo work. The composer originally called this movement ‘Rhapsody’, but changed its name to Nigun (‘Improvisation’). This Hebrew and Yiddish word literally means ‘tune’, but in the Hassidic context it refers to a genre of songs, usually composed by tzaddikim (‘holy men’ or ‘saints’), the purpose of which is to transport both performer and listener to transcendental realms of spirituality. Niggunim (plural) could be either metrical or non-metrical, and they were usually set to non-semantic syllables (for example, ‘ya-ba-ba’ at a slow pace, or ‘biri-biri-bim-bom’ at a fast tempo). Although in this movement Bloch appears not to have quoted directly or intentionally from Jewish sources, the opening violin motif is identical to a phrase from Ashkenazi biblical cantillation; and one of the prominent melodies in the middle section bears a remarkable resemblance to Vos ost du mir opgeton (‘What have you done to me?’), a traditional Yiddish folksong (Frejlexs) quoted in Moshe Beregovsky’s Yevreiskiye Narodniye Pesny (‘Jewish Folk Songs’, Moscow, 1962).

The last movement, named after the festival of Simchas Torah (‘Rejoicing in the Law’), had earlier been given the Yiddish title Yontef (‘Holy Day’, from the Hebrew Yom Tov). This festival, which comes at the end of the High Holy Day season every Autumn, is the occasion on which the chanting of the last portion of Deuteronomy is immediately followed by that of the first portion of Genesis, so perpetuating the continuous cycle of Torah cantillation, amid joyful celebration and religious dancing. In the middle of this lively finale, Bloch has deliberately introduced the opening motifs of the popular Yiddish song Di Mezhinke Oisgegaybn (‘The youngest daughter married off’) by the Polish composer Mark Warshavsky (1848–1907), tossed back and forth between violin and piano.

All three movements reveal traits typical of Bloch’s music of the 1920s: extremes of melancholy and ecstasy; alternations—either gradual or abrupt—of acute intensity and deep serenity; an enormous spectrum of pitch and dynamics; powerful rhythms contrasting with passages of fluid recitative; fusions of tonality and modality.

From the early years of the twentieth century until deep into the 1920s, Bloch struggled with a biblical opera on the story of Jezebel. In order to revive his interest in the subject once he had settled in New York in 1917, he searched through the 1901–06 edition of the twelve-volume Jewish Encyclopedia for traditional melodies from all over the Jewish world, and he wrote most of them in a manuscript book that bears the name Chants juifs. Although Jézabel never progressed beyond a mass of sketches, now preserved in the Library of Congress, Washington DC, Bloch used many of the collected materials in other works, including his Suite hébraïque of 1951. An extant sheet of paper in Bloch’s handwriting identifies all the most prominent traditional Jewish melodies incorporated into the three movements of the suite. The first movement, Rapsodie, includes Shemot, the Jewish ‘profession of faith’ as it is chanted traditionally at the end of the Day of Atonement in Ashkenazi synagogues. The second movement, Processional, contains two melodies: Kerobot, a melody for a strophic hymn text by the ancient Jewish poet Kallir, and Ahot Ketannah, a tune dating back to 1533 in Salonika. Bloch has used two traditional melodies in the last movement entitled Affirmation: Geshem in the Perso-Arab-Jewish manner, and a short fragment of Ashkenazi Hazzanut (cantorial chant).

The suite began life as Cinq pièces hébraïques for viola and piano in 1951. Three of the five movements were selected and scored for full orchestra two years later; and the work can be played by violin or viola, with piano or orchestral accompaniment. It was conceived following a week-long seventieth-birthday Bloch Festival in Chicago in 1950, comprising chamber music, synagogue performances, and two concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Jan Kubelík. The driving force behind the festival was Samuel Laderman, Chairman of the Music Committee of the Covenant Club of Illinois. Bloch, on returning to his home in Oregon, wrote this suite in a popular, ‘classical’ Jewish style as a gift to the Covenant Club in gratitude for the festival.

‘The Bloch Suites are latter-day Bach Partitas; and [Bloch] continually perfected his contrapuntal technique, doing elaborate and complex mental contrapuntal exercises in his voluminous notebooks.’ So writes Yehudi Menuhin in the commentary to his 1975 EMI recording of the two unaccompanied suites for solo violin, both composed in 1958, the year before Bloch’s death. These suites, commissioned by—and dedicated to—Menuhin, are short works in a neoclassical style. It would be misleading to claim, as some commentators have, that Bloch’s last works are more ‘objective’ and less emotional than those he wrote as a younger man. The solo suites have all the passion, virtuosity and rhythmic dynamism of Baal Shem and Suite hébraïque. They were first performed in public by the Argentinian violinist Alberto Lysy, a pupil of Menuhin, at the Wigmore Hall, London, on 2 January 1959.

Suite No 1 for solo violin consists of four movements, played without a break: Preludio; Andante tranquillo; Allegro—Andante; Allegro energico. The brief prelude, grounded in a modified G minor, is rhapsodic in character, and evokes reminiscences of the melodic idiom in Voice in the Wilderness (for cello and orchestra, 1936) and the Violin Concerto (1938). This leads directly into the largely monophonic second movement with its fluctuations between tonality and atonality. The Allegro shifts to an E tonality, and is especially Bachian in its string crossing and chordal writing. This is followed by the short, reflective Andante in the key of D minor, which leads into the vigorous finale, again in G minor. As in many of Bloch’s composite works, the cyclic element is present here, with restatements of themes from previous movements, and the works closes on a dramatic tierce de Picardie.

Suite No 2 for solo violin comprises four movements, again played without pauses: Energico, deciso; Moderato; Andante; Allegro molto. The improvisatory character of the opening movement recalls some of the material heard in certain impassioned passages in Baal Shem. The second movement, a gentle dance in compound time, with a striking chordal section as its centrepiece, is followed by a warm, lyrical Andante. The serene mood is shattered by the dissonant opening of the finale, which heralds a pounding perpetuum mobile full of repeated notes, broken chords and wide leaps.

Aside from frequently shifting tonal centres, occasional flirtations with serialism, and abrupt changes of tempo and dynamics, Bloch’s intention here was not to experiment with modern techniques, but rather to extend the ethos of the eighteenth century into the language of his own epoch.

Parallel to Ernest Bloch’s deepening awakening to the Jewish soul in music is the œuvre of Paul Ben-Haïm (1897–1984) who, from an educated German-Jewish background, became a pioneering leader of the ‘Eastern Mediterranean School’ and Israel’s most famous composer. Born in Munich as Paul Frankenburger, he graduated from the Munich Academy to become Bruno Walter’s assistant at the Bavarian Opera and Musical Director of the Augsburg Opera. Yet from the late 1920s he was inspired to compose Jewish music by his friend Heinrich Schalit (a pupil of Mahler’s teacher Fuchs, who later emigrated to the USA). Among his most important early works are the oratorio Joram, composed in 1933, the year of Bloch’s Sacred Service, yet premiered much later in Tel-Aviv in 1979, and the Piano Suite No 1, Op 2a, the last work he wrote in Germany and the first to quote from a Yemenite-Jewish folksong.

Ben-Haïm was one of the leaders of the group of émigré composers who fled Nazi persecution in Europe in the 1930s, forced to rebuild their careers in strange and often harsh conditions. While some went to America (Schoenberg, Korngold and Weill), or to Britain (Reizenstein, Gál, Goldschmidt), some forty composers found refuge in Palestine, where an earlier generation of Russian and Eastern European Zionists had already created an active musical infrastructure. The musical style was pluralistic; as Max Brod, critic and composer and friend of Kafka, characterized it: ‘From every corner, very different stones are brought in, stones which constitute the structure of our music.’ Yet one style eventually came to dominate, the ‘Eastern Mediterranean School’, a radical new aesthetic based on an East and West synthesis, which combined oriental as well as occidental Jewish folklore, favoured French post-Impressionism over Germanic modernism, and drew inspiration from the lyrical poetry of the Hebrew Psalms.

Like many of the composers who espoused this style, including Alexander Uriah Boskovich (1907–1964), Paul Ben-Haïm absorbed oriental Jewish music through collaboration with Bracha Zfira, a Yemenite singer, for whom Ben-Haïm arranged some thirty-five songs between 1939 and 1951. One of the arrangements, that of the Ladino folksong Mama yo no tengo visto made in 1939, is the Berceuse sfaradite, one of Ben-Haïm’s most popular works. This beautiful lullaby was arranged in 1945 for violin and piano, as well as for various combinations of voices and instruments. The violin’s beguiling, undulating melody unfolds smoothly over lilting arpeggios, spiced by some caustic dissonances, and repeated in different registers, notably in the upper range where the melody gains a glowing bell-like resonance. Some dialogue enlivens the texture with the piano, which presents the melody before the violin’s final statement, which is sustained magically like a silken thread on a high trill, as the piano comes to rest in the dark and peaceful bass.

From the same year comes the Improvisation and Dance Op 30, composed on 30 December 1939, a virtuoso work in the mould of violin showpieces by composers such as Sarasate, Wieniawski and Ravel, yet refracted through the unique modal filters of Ben-Haïm’s Eastern Mediterranean idiom. The Improvisation has echoes of Bloch’s Baal Shem suite in its reflective soliloquy, coloured both by the whispered hues of the low range and the glistening harmonics of the highest registers, yet its Eastern colours are evident in the delicate ornaments, chords and trills. When the piano enters with atmospheric arpeggios, the violin becomes increasingly rhapsodic. A slow dance evolves, the piano’s sustained drones and trills supporting a delicately tripping violin idea, which is soon set in dialogue. The Dance is launched by chordal syncopations in the violin and a frenetic ostinato piano pattern. Momentum is interrupted for a brief recollection of the slow Improvisation, but the speed picks up over a long piano trill and the dance resumes, this time the tune heard in the piano against vibrant octaves in the violin. A final pause for breath precedes the exhilarating final flourish.

As with composers such as Bartók and Vaughan Williams involved in the folk-music revival, folk influences are to be found throughout the very fabric of Ben-Haïm’s original œuvre, including two symphonies, the award-winning oratorio The Sweet Psalmist of Israel, and a large output of chamber and vocal music. One of his most compelling string works, which combines the Eastern Mediterranean style with a neoclassical approach, is the Sonata in G for solo violin Op 44. It was composed in three days in 1951 to a commission from Yehudi Menuhin, who gave the premiere at Carnegie Hall in February 1952. It was also for Menuhin that Ben-Haïm composed one of his last works, the Three Studies for solo violin of 1981. The Sonata Op 44 was inspired by Bartók’s solo Sonata, which Menuhin performed in 1951 in Tel-Aviv, and shares with that work the influence of Bach’s solo Sonatas and Partitas.

The neo-Baroque elements are most marked in the sonata-design first movement, Allegro energico, based on a memorable strident rhythmic motif, which recurs at important junctures in different keys rather like a Baroque ‘ritornello’ form, leading to a climactic final statement that resembles a sonata recapitulation. It is interspersed by fluid passagework and Bachian contrapuntal textures, yet infused with a modal flavour that seems to blend Middle Eastern colours with the impressionism of Bloch, Debussy and Ravel. Folkloristic elements are more pronounced in the last two movements, the more expressive of which is the slow movement that inhabits the pastoral mood suggested in biblical psalms, shepherd pipes and Bedouin chants. There is an exotic magic to the long winding melody that weaves melismas around the main notes of a simple mode. The finale is fizzing Hora, a dance that, speeded up from its slow Eastern European roots, became an Israeli national dance. Here it is treated as a moto perpetuo in rondo form, adorned with exuberant violinistic pyrotechnics that concludes the Sonata with virtuoso panache.

Alexander Knapp © 2007

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