When Paul Frankenburger was taken on as Bruno Walter’s assistant conductor in Munich in 1920, he was one among thousands of highly-trained musicians in a city of deep-rooted musical traditions. When he fled Germany for Palestine in 1933, Paul Ben-Haim (his Hebraised name) was by some distance the most accomplished musician in a land with no musical tradition since King David. He saw his new life more as a responsibility than an opportunity, immersing himself in the micro-tones of Judeo-Arab liturgies and nurturing two new generations of composers.
His own music, a fusion of west and east, is seldom heard or recorded outside Israel. This compilation of violin works, compellingy performed by Itamar Zorman with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales on a Swedish label, yields in its title track something verging on revelation.
Evocation (Yizkor) for violin and orchestra was written in memory of a concertmaster of the Palestine Symphony, Andreas Weissberger, who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1942. Both lyrical and emotional – one passage calls to mind Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending – it is also challenging and hopeful, closer in some ways to Janacek than to Korngild or Richard Strauss. You will not meet many unheard concertos of such wistful and appealing qualities, passionately evoked by an empathetic soloist.
Ben-Haim’s formal violin concerto, dated 1960, feels constrained by his status as the premier composer of an insecure young country that looked to him for Delphic prophecy. It’s an exquisitely well-made piece with many passing melodies, none quite strong enough to sustain national expectations. Zorman fills out the album with pieces for violin and piano, and violin solo. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a warmer or more enjoyable Ben-Haim programme.