Saturday, 5 May 2012

Looking beyond Dana International...

Trying to get an initial overview of a country's output of classical music since its creation over sixty years ago is an interesting task. Whether the resulting survey gives anything even approaching a representative picture is for others to say.

After the State of Israel came into existence, many of its earliest composers - usually exiles from Europe -  began seeking to create a fresh kind of music for a new nation. Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) was the best-known of these composers. He could sometimes write like a late-Romantic, taking the path favoured by the underrated Swiss-American composer, Ernest Bloch, of writing music with Jewish themes. A short example is the Fanfare for Israel which, despite having a stirringly brassy start and finish, is dominated by a beautiful romantic melody. You might also like to try the haunting Lento from his Sonata for Solo Violin.

Another composer writing in a similar vein was Oedoen Partos (1907-1977), whose Yizkor (In memoriam) for cello and orchestra is in a similarly Romantic in character. By all accounts, Partos's music got tougher as he got older, eventually embracing Schoenbergian serialism. The Fantasy for piano trio recalls the tougher side of Bloch - as do the Psalms for string quartet, where Partos's folk-music side fuses with his modernist impulses to interesting effect.

Returning to Paul Ben-Haim. Many of his other works have much more of a French-influenced impressionist soundworld, though the near-Eastern vein of melody is usually prominent too. There are several beguiling examples of this - such as his Three Songs Without Words (arranged for flute and harp) and his Melody with Variations for piano, the song, I am the Rose of Sharon, the first movement of his Clarinet Quintet and the delicious Five Pieces for Piano, Op.34. If you like the music of Ravel and Debussy, you should love this chamber and instrumental music. Paul Ben-Haim is clearly a composer who should be much better known.

This attempt to marry impressionism with themes appropriate to the area where Israel lives (including Arabic music) was, it seems, a characteristic of what was known as the 'Mediterranean School'. Resisting the 'Mediterranean School' and its use of folk melodies - and impressionism - was Josef Tal (1910-2008). Like Partos, he also eventually went down the serial route, but his earlier music avoids any Israeli or Arab tunes and projects a modernist outlook balanced between tonality and atonality, as in his dramatic Piano Sonata.

Notwithstanding the likes of Tal, Israeli composers have continued to explore their own heritage and that of others who live in and around their country. Take Mark Kopytman (1929-2011). As his Alliterations for piano show, he isn't averse to composing in a modernist style. His String Quartet No.1, however, bears the subtitle Two Miniatures on Folk Tunes and is a melodically attractive work which listeners who like Vaughan Williams and Hovhaness will take to - tunes and beautiful part-writing abound here. His Kaddish for cello and piano follows in the post-Romantic line of Ben-Haim and Bloch.

Noam Sheriff (b.1935) is one of the better known Israeli composers. His highly accessible music remains strongly 'Mediterranean' at times, despite touches of modernism - as with his entrancing Song of Songs for flute and orchestra. His tonal-modal Sephardic Passion shows the influence of Stravinsky and Bernstein  and will make friends of many listeners. Jewish chant is a strong influence in Confession for solo cello.

Profiles of Tzvi Avni (b.1927) suggest he began as a 'Mediterranean' composer before becoming a modernist and then returning to a sort of tonal writing. This trajectory can be traced from the colourful, folkish song-cycle Behold Thou Art Fair, through the neo-Classical Piano Sonata No.1 onto the somewhat Bartokian Summer Strings for string quartet and Psalms for oboe and strings. With Leda and the Swan for soprano and clarinet we are into the world of the post-Webern avant garde (albeit rather gently so). If you've clicked on those links, you'll be aware that Tzvi Avni is a serious and rewarding composer, so when he made his return to tonality, as in There and Then - Prelude and Pasacaglia for piano, it wasn't to play to the crowds. Interestingly, Phoenix for solo viola, the composer's response to the 9/11 massacre in America, seems to mark a return to the composer's roots.  

Talk of the post-Webern avant garde brings me to a pupil of one of its key figures, Luciano Berio - Betty Olivero (b.1954). Strings, percussion and accordion accompany a solo viola in her beautiful recent Neharót Neharót, a lamenting yet ultimately hopeful work inspired by the Lebanon War of 2006. Accordion and percussion lighten the initial darkness before the soloist enters, continuing the accordion's spirit of lyrical, near-Eastern melody. Despite being a Berio pupil, Betty Olivero is no avant-gardist in this piece - though there is a role for electronics in manipulating female voices. If you want to hear the avant-garde side of her music then Sofim (Endings) for solo piano is a good place to begin. 

Among more recent generations, Yitzhak Yedid (b.1971) is rated highly and it's not hard to hear why. He is also strongly drawn to using Jewish and Arabic material, though you can also hear a bit of jazz in Passions & Prayers, Sextet in Homage to Jerusalem for horn, clarinet, trombone, viola, double bass and piano - a very arresting listen which shows the composer's dramatic sense to be acute. Even his recent solo harp piece, Out To Infinity, will keep you on the edge of your seat. His piano trio Sensations is no less hair-raising at times. Yitzhak Yedid doesn't seem like the sort of composer who is ever going to appear on a 'Relaxing Classics' CD! 

What to make of Lior Navok (b.1971), whose Veiled Echoes for the Debussyan combination of flute, violin and harp strikes a note of Frenchness that takes Israeli music back to its early days - and beyond? Gentle and elegant, the piece makes an attractive impression and sounds a world away from the music of Yedid. This impression of a Debussyan/Messiaen-like sensibility can be glimpsed in some of his piano works too, such as The Mad Hatter Goes to a Silent MovieThe Abandoned Jazz Club, Night Train and Smugglers' Boat-Coastguard Boat. You might also like to try his four-movement Piano Trio. From these pieces, it looks to me as if Lior Navok is a Western classical music traditionalist who aims at writing beautiful music. 

Gilad Hochman (b.1981) is the youngest composer in this short survey and, like Navok, is not afraid to strike an old-fashioned note in his music - nor to draw on his Jewish roots. Whom My Soul Loveth for cello and choir is a particularly winning example. The cello sings a soulful Jewish melody while the choir sing in a fresh, tonal style. That Gilad Hockman lyricism can assume a modern cast, try the flute writing at the start of his otherwise part neo-Classical/part-minimalist-sounding Concertino for string orchestra and flute obbligato. You can check out more of his music here.

Israel clearly has a rich, varied and ongoing classical music tradition. We hear so little of it in the U.K.

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