February 17, 2019

Rediscovering Ben-Haim

In 1920, Paul Frankenburger was 23 and an up-and-coming German conductor and composer. For the next four years, he assisted two of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, Bruno Walter and Hans Knappertsbusch, but by 1933, the Nazis had forced him to immigrate to Palestine. At 36, he had to start over.

Undaunted, Frankenburger changed his surname to Ben-Haim and went on to reinvent and refresh both his personal and musical identity, eventually becoming a national treasure of his adopted homeland. In 1957, he received the Israel Prize in music for his King David-inspired orchestral score, “The Sweet Psalmist of Israel,” which was conducted two years later by Leonard Bernstein in New York. A widely admired recording with the New York Philharmonic followed.

In his day, and in the decade following his death in 1984, Ben-Haim was celebrated by great musicians, among them violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who frequently programmed his Sonata in G minor for Solo Violin, and Itzhak Perlman, who recorded a dazzling rendition of his Violin Concerto in 1993 with the Israel Philharmonic, led by Zubin Mehta. 

But these days, the Israeli composer isn’t heard much in concert halls, and his catalog available on Amazon is scant. 

That may change with the release of “Chamber Works by Paul Ben-Haim,” the latest installment of Canada’s venturesome ARC Ensemble “Music in Exile” series. The vibrant recording, thrillingly performed, offers a rich musical portrait of the Israeli composer from 1921 to 1965.

The Toronto-based ensemble, in its 10th season, plans to explore works not only by Jewish composers who fled Germany during the 1930s, but also by the non-Jews who remained behind, resisting totalitarianism and becoming “internal exiles.” 

Furthermore, on Nov. 17, the eight ARC (“Artists of the Royal Conservatory”) musicians will perform a program of all-Polish music at the downtown Colburn School’s Zipper Hall, including Piano Quintets by Mieczyslaw Weinberg — in 2006, the ensemble’s RCA disc of his chamber music was nominated for a Grammy — and Szymon Laks.

The ensemble’s choice of repertoire is often initially proposed by its artistic director, guitarist Simon Wynberg, who then discusses the possibilities with the musicians.

“We thought it would be better to do something unknown, rather than the 150th version of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet or Schubert’s `Trout,’ “ Wynberg said by phone from Toronto. “We didn’t think we’d be adding to what’s already been said musically, so I started looking for groundbreaking repertoire.”

The ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory). Photo courtesy of ARC

Wynberg said James Conlon, music director of Los Angeles Opera, became an early supporter of the ARC’s project. Conlon’s own earlier “Recovered Voices” series focused on little-known or forgotten operas pushed aside by the Holocaust.

“Ben-Haim was Israel’s best-known national composer,” Wynberg said, “and I wondered why so much of his music was still unexplored.” 

Wynberg started corresponding with Ben-Haim’s biographer, Jehoash Hirshberg, professor emeritus of musicology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He studied the Ben-Haim music catalog included in Hirshberg’s book. 

“When I met Hirshberg in Israel, I asked him about the composer’s early Piano Quartet,” Wynberg said, “and he said it was well worth looking into, even though it’s stylistically very different from his Israeli works.”

The Piano Quartet, probably last heard in Europe on a 1932 German radio broadcast, is the first piece on the new recording. It’s a solidly crafted late-Romantic work, full of rhythmic drive and unforced lyricism. Exulting in every bar of the score, the ARC players make the 1921 piece sound freshly conceived.

Wynberg said the score was discovered still in manuscript, and not performed in Israel, probably because Israeli musicologists and musicians were less interested in exploring works written before Ben-Haim’s immigration. 

The new release offers Ben-Haim’s works from 1921 to 1965.

“No one had looked at it,” Wynberg said. “Ben-Haim’s musical language changed when he arrived in Israel. He heard things he wouldn’t have heard in Germany — folk tunes, traditional melodies.”

In some ways, Ben-Haim was a composer in the right place at the right time. He became a hugely successful tonal composer, whose colorful folkloristic style and exotic melodies were particularly relevant to the Israeli experience.

“This was a young country looking to provide an identity for itself,” Wynberg said. “Writing music as if you were part of a German conservatory was not going to cut it. It was a tabula rasa. You could do what your conscience and creativity pushed you to do.”

Wynberg said Ben-Haim’s style imaginatively melds “European conservatory training with the atmosphere of the Middle East.”

You can hear what he’s talking about in the recording’s riveting accounts of the quirky and restless Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, the atmospheric “Two Landscapes” for viola and piano, and Improvisation and Dance for violin and piano.

Erika Raum, one of the ensemble’s violinists, whose teacher, Lorand Fenyves, was concertmaster of the Palestine Symphony (which became the Israel Philharmonic), said Ben-Haim “brought his central European training to the table, the development of complex harmony and extended forms.” 

Raum called Ben-Haim’s early Piano Quartet “a fabulous piece,” and rated Weinberg’s Piano Quintet, which will be performed at Zipper Hall on Nov. 17 — (alas, there won’t be any Ben-Haim on that program) — “up there with Shostakovich.”

While the ARC Ensemble can and does play canonical works like the Brahms Piano Quintet, Wynberg said “there is something particularly exciting about learning and performing a completely unknown piece.”

In a way, Wynberg suggested, perhaps it’s a bit like what Ben-Haim may have felt setting out on a new adventure in Palestine. “Creating a new culture,” Wynberg said, “must have been incredibly exciting.”