Voices in the wilderness

The fate of Jewish musicians during the first half of the twentieth century was marked by persecution, and exile for those who managed to flee from Europe and survived the Holocaust. Some Jewish musicians and composers settled in the United States like Ernest Bloch and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, others in the Soviet Union like Mieczysław Weinberg, and others in Palestine like Paul Ben-Haim. The English cellist Raphael Wallfisch, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, has long been an advocate of the rich cello repertoire issued from this tragic history. In 2017 he launched with the label CPO a collection of beautiful recordings entitled « Voices in the Desert – Cello Concertos by Jewish Composers in Exile », among which an album of works by Ben-Haim, Bloch and Korngold has caught my attention. This album is the perfect opportunity to discover rarely performed works for the cello, and to dive into the vibrant repertoire of the Jewish music.

Born Paul Frankenburger into a family of the Munich bourgeoisie, Paul Ben-Haim began his career as a musician under the best auspices. He was the assistant of renowned conductors Bruno Walter and Hans Knappertbusch before becoming the musical director of the Augsburg Opera from 1924 to 1931. Dismissed from this opera house, along with all the Jewish employees, by the newly appointed Nazi intendant, he was unable to find any other employment elsewhere, and in the 1930s the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany finally convinced him to go into exile. In 1933, the composer and conductor settled in Tel Aviv and took the name « Ben-Haim, » son of Haim, after his father’s name in Hebrew, but also a reference to the Hebrew word for « life ». The cello concerto performed by Raphael Wallfisch in this recording was written for cellist Richard Katz in 1962, although it took ten years before it was first performed in concert.

Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984)

According to Malcolm Miller in the booklet of the album, the « three movement Cello Concerto exploits the solo cello’s virtuoso agility as well as expressive versatility, and exemplifies Ben-Haim’s synthesis of Eastern Mediterranean styles within a European formal framework. The final two movements are based on two original Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) love songs, »Noches Noches« and »Noches Buenas«« , whose source is « the collection Chants Sephardis (1958) by the French ethnomusicologist Léon Algazi (1890–1971), whom Ben-Haim encountered personally in Paris« . This work, in which one can hear the influence of Western composers such as Bartok and Shostakovich, as well as the influence of Sephardic and Oriental popular music, is an excellent gateway to the music of Paul Ben-Haim, but also to Israeli classical music, which he helped to forge, as Malcolm Miller points out: « These and other works of the 40s evinced the aesthetic tendencies of a new national musical style, drawing on Eastern Jewish folklore, biblical cantillation, French post-Impressionism and middle-eastern dances, modes and sounds.« 

Self-portrait of Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) in kimono (1922 or 23) when he was director of the Institute of Music in Cleveland.
Eric B. Johnson

A timeless composer, who stayed away from the modernist concerns of his colleagues, Ernest Bloch went down in music history as the greatest Jewish composer, but far from adopting an ethnomusicological approach, Bloch sought above all to express a spiritual quest in his music: « It is not my intention or wish to work for the restoration of Jewish music. I don’t want to base my music on more or less authentic melodies. I am not an archaeologist. I believe that the most important thing is to write sincere and good music, my own. What I’m really interested in is the Hebrew spirit. That complex, fiery, restless soul that the Bible stirs in me. The vigour of the Patriarchs, the violence of the Book of the Prophets, the burning love of justice, the pain and grandeur of the Book of Job, the sensuality of the Song of Songs. All this is in us, all this is in me, and this is the best part of me.« (Source: Gil Pressnitzer, « Ernest Bloch: A voice from the depths of time », Nomadic Spirits)

Born in Switzerland in 1880, Bloch learned the violin from the age of 9, and soon began to compose. He first studied with Emile Jacques-Dalcroze in Geneva, before going to the Brussels Conservatory, where he was taught by Eugène Ysaÿe. He then continued his training in Germany with Iwan Knorr and Ludwig Thuille. While studying in Germany, he met Edmond Fleg, a Jewish nationalist writer, who deeply influenced him and led him to immerse himself in his Jewish roots, and in particular to study the Bible in 1906. After completing his studies, he traveled throughout Europe and then moved to the United States in 1916. Naturalized as an American in 1924, Bloch pursued two parallel careers as a composer and teacher, working at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Bloch decided to return to Europe, but the rise of Nazism forced the composer to moved back to the United States in 1939, where he continued to compose while teaching at the University of Berkeley between 1942 and 1952.

The Symphony for Cello and Orchestra was originally a work for trombone and orchestra composed for the American trombonist William Schuman in 1953-54. Although short for a symphony, as Alexander Knapp writes in the booklet, « the orchestral forces required are enormous: triple woodwind; full brass; percussion comprising timpani, cymbals, tam-tam, snare drum, bass drum; harp; celesta; and string band. These all play their part in creating an exotic panorama, recalling the timbres of the seven completed works comprising the »Jewish Cycle« of forty years earlier, notably Schelomo. The solo instrument is integral to this richness of orchestral texture, and functions in an obbligato role. It does not stand apart – hence the choice of »symphony«, rather than »concerto«, in the title.« 

The recording also includes two movements from the Baal Schem Suite (1923), composed for piano and violin, and here arranged for cello and orchestra. According to Alexander Knapp, these two pieces express « 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: all these traits appear in each movement of the Suite and are typical of Bloch’s music of the 1920s.« 

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897- 1957) en 1916. AKG images.

Recent years have seen a rediscovery of the work of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer who was most famous for his film music from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Korngold was born in 1897 in Brno, a Czech city that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Son of the music critic Julius Korngold, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a real « wunderkind »: at the age of 5 he performed in concert with his father, when he was 6 he started composing, and at the age of 9 he was introduced to Gustav Mahler, who was so impressed by the young musician that he recommended him as a pupil to Alexander von Zemlinsky. Korngold’s rise was very rapid, and at the age of 23 he achieved fame on opera stages all over Europe thanks to the success of his opera Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City), of which an excerpt arranged for cello and orchestra can be heard in this album.

In the 1930s, labeled by the Nazi regime as a degenerate composer, he turned to the United States, where the producers of Paramount and Warner studios invited him to compose film scores, following a first experience for his friend the director Max Reinhardt on the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. During this Hollywood period, Korngold composed some of the most beautiful film scores such as The Sea Hawk, The Private lives of Elisabeth and Essex, or Captain Blood, and the income he then earned allowed him to help financially many Jewish musicians in exile. As Jessica Duchen explains in the booklet, « in March 1938, Korngold was in Hollywood scoring The Adventures of Robin Hood […] when news of the Anschluss broke. His parents and his elder son, Ernst, escaped from Vienna to Switzerland on the last train and came out to Hollywood. Korngold always credited Jack Warner with saving their lives.« 

Korngold first composed the music for the Cello Concerto for the film Deception, the last film in which he participated at Warner Brothers studios. The film tells the story of a love triangle in which a cellist and a famous composer are both in love with a pianist. Shortly after the film’s release, Korngold took the score from the film and used it to compose the cello concerto. The concerto’s music retains traces of its cinematigraphic origins, although you don’t have to watch the film to appreciate the work. According to Jessica Duchen, « the concerto reflects the love triangle’s emotional turmoil with a terse opening theme full of jagged rhythms; this music often evokes, within an anchored tonal setting, the modernist, dodecaphonic outlines that many composers of the time were using. But then comes the second subject, a songful and nostalgic melody in the cello’s upper register, lingering magically at its peak, against a background of shimmering orchestra- tion including harp and vibraphone. There ensues a development section, full of tricky counterpoint and fierce percussive effects which lead into a short cadenza, and thence into a contrasting slow section, dignified and mournful, that serves as substitute slow movement. At its conclusion, the first theme returns: new off-beat effects and countermelodies increase the tension, ultimately heading into a short cadenza that ratchets up the fervid emotions (and bears some possibly coincidental resem- blance to The Flight of the Bumble Bee). The second subject propels the music into a coda and a resolution that recalls the very opening. It is intriguing that, although the music sounds extremely flexible throughout, every rubato effect – typically for Korngold – is written out in detail, resulting in a score replete with changes of time signature.« 

The virtuosity as well as the musical intelligence of Raphael Wallfisch both make him the ideal interpreter of this spectacular and lyrical music, which he defends with great passion and emotion. He intimately understands all the dramatic and cultural complexity transcribed in these works by Jewish composers whose music has too long been neglected by music lovers and musicians because it was deemed unfashionable and too traditional in the twentieth century. Wallfisch is accompanied in this album by the excellent Polish conductor Łukasz Borowicz and the talented musicians of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. We can only hope that other musicians will continue to explore and perform the repertoire of Korngold, Ben-Haim and Bloch, so that they can be played more regularly in concert. Their musical legacy is one of the most beautiful witnesses of a musical world so rich and moving, a world that hatred and racism almost erased for ever.

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