By Cristina Schreil
Outside Israel, many aren’t immediately familiar with composer Paul Ben-Haim. Israeli violinist Itamar Zorman hopes to change that.
Born Paul Frankenburger in Munich to secular Jewish parents in 1897, Ben-Haim emigrated to Israel in his late 30s and ultimately became a key founder of Israel’s “Mediterranean style.” As Zorman displays in his new album’s programming, there was a fascinating progression and fusion as Ben-Haim steeped in the musical languages of the Middle East. He lived there until his death in 1984.
Upon winning the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award, Zorman embarked on this recording project, which spotlights the breadth and diversity of Ben-Haim’s compositions, from a violin concerto to solo etudes to chamber compositions to works with orchestra. Zorman presents the works in near-exact chronological order. It’s a choice that demonstrates Ben-Haim’s musical evolution—while not forgetting his Western-European foundation—over time. Some pieces resonate as distinctly of this new Mediterranean style, weaving in harmonies influenced by Middle Eastern dances and arabesques or Sephardic Jewish tunes; other works are of the Romantic tradition and seem to have very little Middle Eastern presence. Two works are world-premiere recordings: “Evocation,” Ben-Haim’s 1942 “poem” for violin and orchestra and “Three Etudes” for solo violin from 1981. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Swiss conductor Philippe Bach accompany Zorman; the album’s two chamber works also feature pianist Amy Yang. There’s also a Toccata arranged by Zorman’s father, composer Moshe Zorman, from Ben-Haim’s Five Pieces for Piano, Op. 34.
Zorman says the project soon became a collaborative effort between everyone involved. “They were enthusiastic,” he says.
The recording process coincided with Ben-Haim’s 120th birthday. The Borletti-Buitoni Trust created a film chronicling the project and delving into Ben-Haim’s life.
Zorman spoke with us about what he loves about Ben-Haim’s work and the passionate recording process ahead of the album’s April 5 release on BIS.
Tell us about your first encounters with Ben-Haim’s music.
Maybe he’s not too well known outside of Israel, but in Israel he’s really well known. He’s definitely one of the most played composers and one of the most important ones. Certainly, he’s one of the pioneers in creating a national style in Israel—the same way that, let’s say, Bartok did in Hungary and Dvorak did in what is now the Czech Republic. He played a similar role. I got to hear his music and play it from quite a young age. And I must say, back then, I liked it. I didn’t particularly connect to it, but I liked it.
When did you really connect?
I was maybe 19 or 20 and I played in a string quartet. We played a short piece by him, a prelude for string quartet. It’s actually not very difficult. It’s a beautiful piece. Really, somehow at that point, the combination of the melodic materials that are inspired by a bunch of sources, from Eastern European/Jewish to Arabic tunes from the Middle East. Plus he’s a great craftsman very much in the German tradition. Plus harmony, which is a little French—Ravel, I would say, comes to mind. All of that suddenly struck me. I began looking more and more into his pieces. I just loved, really, a lot of what he writes, not only for the violin. He has two symphonies and a lot of other chamber music, [including] a piano trio. Over time, I collected pieces for violin that I really liked and we ended up recording them.
Is this fusion of many different styles—from Europe, from the Middle East—at the heart of all of his music?
Only since 1933. He was born in 1897. He was raised and worked as an opera conductor mainly in Germany until he was 37 years old. All his music before that is essentially, German music. You can hear a lot of Mahler, maybe. It’s post-Romantic. Actually, some of it is really rather beautiful, but it has nothing to do with the Middle East. Following [his move to Israel], he changed his name and he also changed his style quite radically. Imagine someone like Mahler or Richard Strauss taking a 180 and incorporating Arabic features into their music. It is striking.
Although, in this CD I was hoping to show that even that was a process. First, it was just the folk tunes, but not really with the musical language around it. And then these elements started sinking in and the music became more and more of not just quoting a song, but actually really trying to incorporate some of the traditions of the region.
You mentioned he became founder of a new national style: “Mediterranean style.” What does that mean?
Many of the composers who came to Israel right before it was founded in 1948, or right after, were refugees from all sorts of places. They came with their own cultural identity—usually European, but not only. They wanted to start something new for several reasons. They just wanted to leave their past behind; maybe there was more of a political agenda. But, the idea was in the way that basically every country has some sort of national style. [They thought], “We need to find a national style.”
In Israel it was a challenge because people came from many places. They were looking for various points of inspiration. The Mediterranean style really reflects that. There’s a lot of the music of the region, so incorporating Arabic music. Ben-Haim himself does not go all the way to quarter tones, although he does imitate the effect of quarter tones by alternating sharps and naturals, or flats and naturals, often. The idea is that a tone could imply that it could go both ways, instead of having the tone in the middle: one goes up, one goes down. And also looking a little bit back to the time of the Bible, trying to imagine what music from that time, of King David, Solomon and similar people, would sound like. Also maybe looking at the Greek modes, which are a little bit closer in time, chronologically, to those [Biblical] times, in trying to imagine the sound of those times. This is what I would say “Mediterranean style” is in a nutshell.
How would you describe Ben-Haim’s violin music?
For the violin he writes very well. He played the violin; piano was his main instrument, but he started on the violin. In a way I find it touching that the etudes, which I play on this album, which were never before recorded, were really one of the last pieces he completed. In fact, these are the last ones that are mentioned by the biography that I read. It’s nice that he came back to the violin.
His writing is, first of all, melodic, always singing . . . . It’s also not overly emotional. I don’t always like to make these types of comparisons, but Brahms also always keeps things somewhat in control emotionally, I would say. Ben Haim is in the same vein. And, he likes to use, for some reason, harmonics in a very innovative, virtuosic way.
Let’s talk more about these premiere recordings. Can you speak about that process and any unexpected insights? Did you get to know his style in a deeper way through the recording process?
I think so, yes. In fact, the two that are premiere recordings on this CD are the earliest and the latest. The first one is “Evocation.” I find it quite astonishing that even I didn’t know about it until I read his biography. He has a violin concerto that’s been played and recorded by Itzhak Perlman and Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra so I did know about that one, but the Evocation I did not know. There was no commercial recording; it was played once on the radio, so a live recording from the ’60s or something exists. What was strange to me about this piece is that it really is very much in a post-Romantic style—it doesn’t have much of the Middle East in it. I would think that this is a piece that actually could be programmed more easily. It really doesn’t sound too modernistic or avant-garde or anything like that. It’s in the vein of Romantic pieces for the violin. And, apparently, Jascha Heifetz had written a cadenza for it. But then, it sort of disappeared. It’s scored for a big symphony orchestra so that might be a reason; you need some resources to program it.
And then, there were the Three Etudes he wrote at the end of his life for Yehudi Menuhin. And also, they are not played at all. There are some pieces by him that, at least in Israel, are quite popular, but not those.
What was your recording process like?
It took three days. What was somewhat heartwarming for me was how people around me really threw themselves into this project and the music. It seemed to me that they really liked it. This is such a personal project—it’s not like I asked them to play Beethoven or something—and it’s very nice that people are into it. For example, the orchestra was a pleasure to work with. The conductor is passionate about this repertoire—he did amazingly. The pianist, Amy Yang, with whom I’ve also played some of this repertoire before, she played very poetically.
[The overall process] was a really nice surprise for me. I was expecting that I would sort of need to convince people about the music, but it just happened.
There’s a film about this album that captures some of the recording process. Did I catch you recording without shoes?
That might have happened at some point, yes! There was some noise. We were recording in December, right before Christmas—I think we were the last people to be working—in Cardiff, and it was quite cold. I was wearing heavy-ish boots. At some point the engineer, who also by the way has done a really phenomenal job, told me I was being a bit too loud. I just took them off.
I was wondering if that’s part of your process, or it was a sound concern.
You just have a good eye. I usually don’t do that, no. For some reason, always in the recording session, there comes a point where there is some noise and no one knows where it comes from. It always happens. Eventually you find something and you hope that’s it—it could be a chair, it could be a music stand, or the AC. It could be many things. The zipper on my blouse was somehow resonating with the violin. Lots of weird things.