In May 1933, the composer Paul Frankenburger left Munich for Tel-Aviv, where he Hebraised his surname and became teacher of the first generation of Israeli-born composers. An austere man, steeped in German Bildung, Ben-Haim grew excited by the microtonal singing of Jews from Arab lands and accompanied the Yemenite performer Bracha Zefira at the piano on extensive concert tours. His orchestral music, however, remained strictly tonal.
The Concerto Grosso, premiered by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra under Issay Dobrowen, takes its neo-classical form from Stravinsky and Strauss and its expansive slow movement from Mahler and Brahms. That said, Ben-Haim is not a crass imitator. There are surges of emotional individuality, allied to a retro aspect that is ironically Aimez-vous Brahms rather than sloppily nostalgic.
The second symphony, finished in 1945, is built around one of Zefira’s songs, a medley of kibbutz tunes and a Persian dance, with a slow movement that reflects upon the dawning horror of the Holocaust, in which the composer lost his sister. The musical language is broadly filmic, redeemed by its lively indigenous content.
The music of Ben-Haim will not change lives – by 1984, when he died, it was hardly heard in Israel any more – but the musical personality behind it is attractive, smart and persuasive. At no point in either of these works does it feel he is going on too long – and of how many composers can that be said? It is also good to be reminded here of the exceptional interpretative gifts of the conductor Yisrael Yinon, who died after collapsing in a Lucerne concert in January 2015. The excellent orchestra is the NDR Philharmonie.
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