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Hyperion Records

CDA67841 - Achron: Complete Suites for violin and piano
The Violin Composition by Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: Various dates
Jerusalem Music Centre, Israel
Produced by Eric Wen
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: March 2012
DISCID: 46127418 0312B421
Total duration: 158 minutes 32 seconds

'Shaham and Erez deliver outstandingly committed performances, revelling in the music's virtuosity, fantasy and heightened intensity of expression' (BBC Music Magazine)

Complete Suites for violin and piano
Hebrew Dance  [6'07]
Hebrew Lullaby  [3'03]
Prelude Op 13  [3'40]
Serenade Op 17  [2'50]
Berceuse Op 20  [3'46]
D minor  [2'04]
B minor  [3'45]
G minor  [3'38]
B major  [1'47]
A minor  [3'58]
E minor  [2'37]
Stempenyu plays  [2'07]
Scher  [1'41]
Freilachs  [2'48]

Admired by Schoenberg (who described him as ‘one of the most underestimated of modern composers’), Joseph Achron was a boundary defying violinist-composer of extraordinary gifts. He drew on his Jewish faith to profound effect, from the early influence of his cantor father to his enthusiastic championing of the Society for Jewish Folk Music (which did for Jewish music what Bartók did for Eastern European folk culture). It’s hardly surprising that much of Achron’s music is for violin—he was a consummate player himself and a prolific recitalist. But what’s striking is how varied and exploratory his output is, delighting in experimentation, as the wonderfully named Suite bizarre demonstrates, just as much as the direct emotionalism of his transcriptions of Hebraic melodies. Who better to present this music than two artists steeped in similar traditions to Achron: Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Joseph Achron (1886–1943), one of the most creative twentieth-century virtuoso violinist-composers, was born in Lazdijai (formerly Russia, currently Lithuania), the second and most talented of four musical siblings. He began violin studies at the age of five with his father, an amateur violinist and lay synagogue cantor, shortly after the family moved, in 1890, to Warsaw. He continued his studies with the Polish virtuoso Isidor Lotto, teacher of Huberman, composing his first piece, Lullaby, at the age of seven. Achron gave his public debut at the age of nine, and in 1896 made his first Russian concert tour, including a recital for the Czar’s brother, receiving a gold watch from the Czarina, Czar Nicholas II’s mother. In 1898 Achron began studies at the St Petersburg Academy with the legendary Leopold Auer, teacher of such luminaries as Elman, Zimbalist, Milstein and Heifetz, Achron’s friend and champion. Achron’s theory teacher Liadov remarked: ‘If you write a prelude like this for your examination … you will receive the highest mark, in spite of the parallel fifths.’ He may have been referring to Achron’s Prelude, Op 13, published in 1904, the year he graduated with highest honours. It reflects Achron’s stylistic debt to Scriabin and his profound melodic gift, evident in the beguiling theme which, repeated in a higher octave, rises to a passionate climax before a calm conclusion.

Achron moved to Berlin following graduation and launched a glittering solo career, earning the praise of Joachim and making notable appearances including a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Nikisch, in which he played his own cadenza. It was a period of prolific composition, 1905 bringing a string of delightful salon pieces. The Souvenir de Varsovie, Op 14, contrasts a dainty waltz with a more sumptuous melodic interlude, rounding off the form with a bravura cadenza. Also in ternary form, Coquetterie, Op 15, is fast yet fragile, the higher repeat of its main theme after a chordal contrast leading to a flourish of harmonics and pizzicato. Elgarian sentimentality shades the Serenade, Op 17, the violin melody, over rippling arpeggios, contrasted by richer chords. Les sylphides, Op 18, radiates Mendelssohnian magic in silvery skipping and soaring phrases that frame a more lyrical central section.

Three multi-movement Suites, Opp 21–23, composed in 1906–7 show a development in style, evident in the dedication of the first two to Achron’s teachers, Isidor Lotto and Leopold Auer respectively. The subtitle to the Suite No 1, Op 21, ‘en style ancien’, refers to its neo-Baroque anachronisms, evident in the movement titles and key structure (from D minor to D major, via F major, A minor and D minor), the simple two- and three-part forms, and much imitation and ornamentation. Yet the infiltration of late-Romantic and modern elements links Achron to the contemporary neoclassicism of Stravinsky and Ravel, whilst the first and third movements specifically foreshadow Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro and Dushkin’s Sicilienne.

The Prélude opens with strident violin arpeggios unfolding bold Baroque harmonic sequences, contrasted by more chromatic arpeggios which descend, before retrieving the initial splendour. In the Gavotte, the elegant, ornamented melody over a running bass is imbued with a contemporary perspective through the intriguing ‘rustic’ tuning and drones of the more chordal second section, and the chromatic richness of the central trio. The expressive heart of the Suite No 1 is the Sicilienne, its lilting melody for muted violin, over gentle piano chords, rising to a climactic solo cadenza. A passage of chromatic counterpoint returns us to a calm conclusion. The effervescent Fughetta is redolent of Baroque writing, yet again enriched with chromaticism. Its sprightly subject is introduced by the violin and answered in fugal manner by the piano in various registers. The violin’s chordal textures build to a powerful pedal-point and the final bold appearance of the subject, replete with triple-stopping. A fine finale ensues in the bristling Gigue, a rondo form with several contrasting episodes. The dance-like theme returns in a slowed-down version in the violin’s low register, then in a new key before an exciting cascade to the theme’s cheerful reappearance.

The Suite No 2, Op 22, displays a remarkable advance in style and technical virtuosity, the titles suggesting a set of Romantic character pieces, written in a progressive idiom. The five movements take us from A minor to A major, via the more distant relationship of the tritone E flat in the second movement, and the more conventional E major (the dominant) and C sharp minor in the third and fourth.

A Bartók-like five-beat rhythm contributes to the first movement’s elusive, volatile character suggested in its title, En passant. Here two themes alternate, developed in instrumental interactions, the final repeat of the first idea soaring high with harmonics and pizzicato. The Menuet contrasts two phrases, the first Bach-like and highly ornamented on its reprise, the second a capricious chromatic rising sequence. The contrasting Trio introduces biting dissonances and wayward harmony, before the Menuet’s return. Helter-skelter staccato scales in the aptly titled Moulin (‘Windmill’) evoke the relentless activity implied by the title, the piano’s theme transformed through chromatic sequences. The marking Vivace e gajamente assai conveys the mood of this virtuoso display piece. The dramatic highpoint of the Suite No 2 is the poetic Intermezzo, its yearning to reach light from darkness enacted in the striving for E major from the darker C sharp minor. The violin’s initial soliloquy leads to an eloquent melody over slowly rising piano chords. It is repeated by piano alone, then, with a new descending idea, by both partners. Here the violin finally reaches E major, coming to rest before falling like a windswept leaf to a repeat of the opening soliloquy in the dark minor. The Suite ends with an exhilarating Allegro molto e scherzando in a broad ternary design introduced by trills and leaps. As the title Marionettes suggests, the violin theme is playful, developing a toccata-like texture in high registers that leads to a percussive pizzicato descent. A central section brings dazzling trills, leaps and syncopations, followed by a reprise of the main theme that leaps to stratospheric registers for the concluding climax.

The Suite No 3, Op 23, entitled Quatre Tableaux fantastiques, was completed in 1907 and represents a further step towards modernist impressionism. It opens with a fluid and highly chromatic Andantino espressivo, the violin’s broad melody unfolding plangently over the piano’s dactylic chords. The theme of the second movement, as its marking Allegretto con grazia ma un pochino malinconico suggests, is sprightly though nostalgic, and envelops a central lyrical interlude. The expressive heart of the Suite No 3 is the Largo e fantastico, the searing melody poised over a relentless pedal-point, the piano’s offbeat harmonies intensifying to a sonorous climax. A lengthy piano introduction launches the rondo finale, in which a graceful, suave theme placed high in the violin’s range is contrasted by two chordal episodes, and crowned by a virtuosic coda.

Achron’s return to St Petersburg in 1908 allowed him to study orchestration with Maximilian Steinberg, while still performing and composing. From this period come Pensée de Leopold Auer (1909), a lilting waltz that increases in elfin agility towards its evanescent coda; the Violin Sonata No 1, Op 29 (1910); and the expressive Zwei Stimmungen (‘Two Impressions’), Op 32 (1910). The first Stimmung, in D minor, is a lively dance contrasting nostalgic minor and optimistic major modes; the second, in B minor, is more reflective, shaded by a chromatically flowing texture. Like Op 32, the Stimmungen Op 36 (published in 1913) are atmospheric miniatures, the ternary song form of No 1 building passion over a syncopated backdrop, whilst No 2 explores a more eerily chromatic harmony with transparent textures.

1911 marked a watershed in Achron’s life: he encountered Salomon Rosovsky (1878–1962), a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and President of the new Society for Jewish Folk Music, which had been founded in St Petersburg in 1908 by the composer Joel Engel (1868– 1927), a Taneyev student in Rimsky-Korsakov’s circle. The Society included composers such as Mikhail Gnesin and Lazar Saminsky and aimed to recreate a national Jewish art-music style based on authentic sources. They were inspired by ethnographic expeditions to Jewish communities across Russia, and by the published results of field work such as an anthology of Jewish tunes recorded and transcribed by Zusman Kiselgof, a source much favoured by Achron. By 1913 the flourishing Society had spread to numerous cities including Moscow, as well as Vienna and Berlin.

Achron was so inspired by his encounter with Rosovsky that he immediately composed his Hebrew Melody, Op 33, in just half an hour. Stated slowly at the outset, the Hasidic melody, recollected from his childhood, is repeated passionately in a higher octave, with varied harmonization. The theme gains in intensity over pulsating chords, and is then gradually embellished before a fervent cadenza. Its final appearance, with a more pleading tone in a higher register, is coloured with rarefied trills, until a closing utterance in the rich lower octave. Rapturously received when Achron premiered it at the Czar’s ‘ball-concert’ in 1912, it was taken up by Heifetz and became the composer’s most popular work. Like several of Achron’s pieces from this period, the Hebrew Melody was written with piano accompaniment and later orchestrated.

Achron soon became chairman of the Society’s music committee, and an advocate of a new Jewish style which he believed should assimilate traditional elements within a sophisticated overall synthesis. This aesthetic is evident in Hazan for cello, Op 34 (1912), and in works that followed. Many of these quote sources at the head of the score, as in the Hebrew Dance, Op 35 No 1, introduced by a solemn piano introduction using a slow version of the source tune. A rhapsodic violin soliloquy alternates twice with a rhythmic dance, full of scintillating violin passagework and a dazzling flourish. The Hebrew Lullaby, Op 35 No 2, is a meditative nocturne based on a rising three-note motif from the source folksong, developed in veiled textures and counterpoint over a sustained pedal bass. The Dance Improvisation, Op 37 (1914), transforms its lively folk-dance tune with modulations, chromaticism, brilliant chordal textures, pizzicatos and trills.

In 1912 Achron transcribed one of the Society’s most popular Jewish works, Eli Zion by Leo Zeitlin (1884–1930), originally written for cello. It is based on a traditional melody collected by Kiselgof, used for ‘Tishe b’Av’, a commemoration of the destruction of the ancient Jerusalem Temple. The searching mood is created by the violin’s cantorial fervour supported by modal piano harmony.

La romanesca is a popular Spanish sixteenth-century dance tune, arranged by Achron in 1913. Liszt composed a piano piece based on the same theme (S252a, in two versions), and although Achron made arrangements for violin and piano of two other Liszt piano works in the same year (Gnomenreigen and Liebestraum No 3) his version of La romanesca makes no mention of the Hungarian composer (despite being listed in some Achron sources as an arrangement of Liszt).

In 1913 Achron took up a post at the Kharkov Conservatory in Ukraine, returning to Petrograd (as it was by this time called) in 1916, whilst also serving in the Russian Army music corps during World War I. This was a period of stylistic experimentation, as shown in his orchestral Epitaph, Op 38 (in memoriam Scriabin), and the progressively avant-garde Suite bizarre, Op 41 (subtitled ‘Cycles des rythmes’), composed in 1916. This title suits the Suite’s unusual irregular rhythm and phrasing, redolent of Bartók and Stravinsky, and its Scriabinesque chromatic harmony, extremes of register and complex instrumental interactions. Yet each movement also displays the discipline of a study, elaborating a single technical and structural idea with leonine violinistic demands.

The first movement, Étincelles, fizzes along with its chirpy dotted theme and quirky phrase lengths. It unfolds with arpeggio motifs and trills, rising higher like the sparks of the title, garbed in expressionistic chromaticism. Impressionistic modernism pervades Quasi valse, the lilting theme perhaps ironically recalling Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube’. Its transformation in different guises and registers is inflected with some giddy dissonances, emphasizing its yearning character. The extreme chromaticism of Grâce recalls the world of Mahler or Zemlinsky, the violin’s melody in chromatic sequences over staccato chords broadening to a more lyrical central section, with a magical pizzicato finish. Terrasses du palais conveys processional solemnity, the high lyrical melody set above a constantly falling scale in the piano’s bass, shaped into three main descents, the theme resolving only at the very end.

The gestures of Grimaces include rising octave swoops, chromatic glissandi, leaps and trills, chromatically guided with much imitation in the piano, which takes a Pierrot-like role until the unexpected ending. Galanterie is a Romantic miniature with a high degree of dissonance, in which a lyrical two-part texture, based on a rhythmic motif, gives way to more triadic imitative writing, and then returns to the initial idea, in a higher register, with flowing piano accompaniment. Finally the theme expands, leading to a cadenza and an elegiac ending redolent of Scriabin.

Pastorale is perhaps a ‘bizarre’ title for a movement which is fast, rhythmically fluid, melodically volatile and highly virtuosic. The irregular seven-beat metre colours the broad melody, which leads to an ornamental turn over a piano backdrop. A breezy faster section leads the violin to stratospheric heights, before returning to the main theme and an imitative coda. The Moment dramatique is rhetorically highly charged, the impassioned violin theme echoed by the piano, its return, after abrupt, dissonant chords, leading to a major-key ending. The Suite concludes with a sparkling Marche grotesque, adventurous and almost atonal. The grotesquerie here involves a piquant motif in myriad guises, rising to very high registers, with trills and chromatic glissandos over staccato piano chords. Both players are stretched to extremes, the violin’s vivacious left-hand pizzicato matched by the piano’s wild leaps and arpeggios, with chromatic sequences and polyrhythmic textures sustaining tension until the final flourish.

From the same period come several Jewish works, including Scher, Op 42 (which also exists in a later version for clarinet and orchestra). Based on a folk dance from the Kiselgof collection, its klezmer-style melody is repeated several times by the violin over increasingly complex chromatic piano textures before a fiery coda. Also from 1917 are the two Pastels, Op 44, dedicated to Efrem Zimbalist, with contrasting characters. The first is broad and poetic, its melodic idea developed in rich chords and deep registers, building to a chromatic climax before a calm conclusion. The second transforms its sprightly melody through skipping sequences and fizzing balletic pyrotechnics.

Following World War I, between 1918 and 1922, Achron performed over a thousand recitals, composed extensively (including incidental music for the Jewish Chamber Theatre), and married the singer Marie Raphof (who later wrote the text for Achron’s vocal arrangement of the Hebrew Melody). The violin works of this period include the substantial Second Violin Sonata, Op 45 (1918), showing the influence of Scriabin and César Franck, and two miniatures included on this recording. Märchen (Hebrew: Agada), Op 46 (1919), exemplifies a Jewish style similar to that of Ernest Bloch, as found in the famous Nigun from Bloch’s suite Baal Shem of 1923. Achron’s original violin melody is similarly cantorial in style, its distinctive shape and decorative ornaments enriched with a weaving chromatic piano part on its repeat, leading to a passionate highpoint and rhapsodic cadenza. There is a notable contrast between such intensity and the more genteel reflectiveness of Liebeswidmung, Op 51 (1921), a soulful nocturne-like miniature, its tender mood spiced with evocative, Scriabinesque chromaticism.

Political and economic conditions forced the closure of the St Petersburg branch of the Society for Jewish Folk Music in 1922, though it survived until 1929 in Russia as a whole. The final St Petersburg concert featured Achron’s Lieder, Op 52, the second of which, a setting of the Hebrew poet Avraham Ben-Yitzhak, was later arranged for violin as the buoyantly lyrical Canzonetta, published in 1923 by Jibneh, the Jewish music publishing house in Berlin which Achron took over with Mikhail Gnesin. In 1922 Achron moved to Berlin, where many of his works were finally published both by Jibneh and Universal Edition. This city, then the cultural capital of Europe, had also attracted many of his colleagues, including Rosovsky and Engel, before they emigrated to Palestine in 1924, and its cosmopolitan creative climate inspired Achron to evolve a more subtle approach to Jewish characteristics, akin to Bartók’s assimilation in his music of Magyar elements. This is evident in Achron’s Children’s Suite, Op 57, originally written for piano, and later arranged for clarinet, string quartet and piano. Eight of the original twenty pieces were adapted in 1934 by Jascha Heifetz for violin and piano, the version recorded here. The set is significantly influenced by traditional cantillation modes, and also by French impressionism, each piece colourfully characterized, alternating fast and slow, and with delicate yet subtly chromatic accompaniments. Jumping with tongue out is a lively dance, contrasted by the plangent innocence of Sleep, my puppy and the pastoral imitations of Birdies, with its trills, darting motifs, repeated notes and shimmering tremolos. The March of Toys sets an ironic jaunty theme over a drone bass, while Mamma, tell a fairy tale resumes mellow lyricism with hints of pentatonic modality. The Top’s vibrant moto perpetuo texture provides a foil to the sustained orientalism of The Caravan, while Parade with presents crowns the set with Stravinskian piquancy and panache.

In 1924 Achron toured Palestine, performing widely and transcribing traditional oriental Jewish melodies which influenced the works he composed in the USA, where he moved in 1925 (he became an American citizen in 1930), following his brother Isidor, a pianist-composer who had settled there in 1922 as accompanist to Heifetz. He settled first in New York, where he composed his Violin Concerto No 1 (1926), which uses a Yemenite song, as well as providing incidental music for the thriving Yiddish theatre. This included both the masterly Golem suite, introduced by Fritz Reiner at the 1932 Venice ISCM, and music for a 1929 production of Sholem Aleichem’s Stempenyu. The latter had been originally composed in 1918 for the Petrograd Jewish Chamber Theatre, and in 1930, following the New York production, was arranged by the composer as a suite for violin and piano. Stempenyu, originally a novel and later adapted by its author as a play titled Jewish Daughters, relates the story of a klezmer fiddler in a small Jewish village (or ‘shtetl’) in Russia, whose virtuosity attracts the attentions of a young (married) woman. The play is full of realistic dialect, complemented by Achron’s use of traditional klezmer dances.

The three pieces of the Stempenyu Suite show Achron’s creative response to the klezmer folk tradition, transforming simple melodies through artful harmonies and textures. Stempenyu plays introduces the hero’s fervent style through a richly eloquent tune, etched over gentle chords, and repeated an octave higher with ornamentation that recalls the vocal improvisation of a synagogue cantor, yet coloured with modal harmony. Scher and Freilachs are lively dances (‘freylach’ is the Yiddish for ‘happy’). In Scher Achron retains the folkish quality of the melody, especially its traditional modal cadence and simple accompaniment. The repeat of the initial phrase is followed by a second phrase which reaches ever higher, over a newly flowing piano texture. The final return of the initial phrase is freshly garbed, again at a higher octave, with polytonal harmonies and bell-like harmonics. The Suite concludes with the zestful, highly syncopated Freilachs, which appears to convey Stempenyu’s almost hysterical wizardy. Achron exploits some violinistic resources like pizzicato strumming at the start, and the music develops into an increasingly energetic dance, enlivened by a recurrent, leaping motif. Once again a repeat of the opening an octave higher leads to a frenetic coda.

In 1934, like fellow European émigrés including Schoenberg, Weill, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Korngold, Achron moved to Hollywood, where he played with studio orchestras and composed his second and third violin concertos, forward-looking works which he premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He died in 1943, still at the height of his artistic powers. At his memorial concert in Los Angeles in 1945, Schoenberg, who had become a friend, declared: ‘Joseph Achron is one of the most underestimated of modern composers but the originality and profound elaboration of his ideas guarantee that his works will last.’ Indeed, one may trace across Achron’s œuvre of over a hundred works a striking evolution from the Romanticism and neoclassicism of his early Russian pieces, through the increasingly sophisticated orientalized syntheses of his Jewish works, to the more atonal, chromatic writing of the later Berlin and American works. Given such a bold journey across the boundaries of musical impressionism and modernism, it is surprising that much of Achron’s music is still in manuscript and awaits rediscovery. We may therefore be grateful for the efforts of performers such as Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez, whose dedicated research and artistry have enabled us to experience a ravishing glimpse into a treasure trove of twentieth-century music.

Malcolm Miller © 2012

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