Paul Ben-Haim’s rising profile on disc receives a substantial boost with this ravishing Chandos release. Marking the debut on disc of Omar Meir Wellber as the BBC Philharmonic’s chief conductor, it also launches what promises to be, on the strength of this first instalment, a revelatory series exploring the Music of Israel.

Paul Ben-Haim

What comes most vividly into focus here is Ben-Haim’s claim to a place alongside Zemlinsky and Korngold as composer of hypnotically ripe emotions, and the wherewithal to clothe them in richly executed, Puccini-like orchestral washes framed by lush, affecting harmonies and delicately dotted by telling instrumental details.

There’s something of Debussy’s diaphanous Pelléas et Mélisande in the intoxicatingly heady fantasy of Pan, a setting of texts by the German poet Heinrich Lautensack. Its first appearance on disc sets the bar high with soprano Claudia Barainsky beautifully accommodating its watercolour amalgam of the ethereal and the sensuous, Wellber and his BBC forces playing with persuasive conviction in its heightened, hallucinogenic intensity.

Clarinettist John Bradbury takes centre stage for Pastorale Variée, a set of six variations on an introductory theme. Originally composed in 1945 as the last movement of a Clarinet Quintet, it was revised and enlarged in 1948, the year Israel declared independence, and celebrates a landscape and heritage the Munich-born composer had first embraced 15 years earlier when he emigrated to then Palestine.

Contemplative and mellow throughout, the Klezmer-tinged clarinet held aloft by warming orchestral thermals, it bursts briefly to life in its concluding ‘Epilogue’ with two sprightly rustic dance-rhythms of the sort that were to become part of Ben-Haim’s mature signature, elevating him to the position of Israel’s national composer in all but name.

Begun on the cusp of the Second World War and completed in 1940, the three-movement First Symphony is an equally ripe concoction, channelling Beethoven as the strident turbulence of its Allegro energico opening gives way to a poignant songlike melody from lilting cellos and a marching rhythmic pulse – part Shostakovich, part Miklós Rózsa – that strides defiantly back into the maelstrom.

Shifting from the mouth of hell to visions of heaven, the tranquil A Minor second movement, to which Ben-Haim later added the title ‘Psalms’, poignantly threads together two traditional Jewish melodies and makes evocative use of oboe, flute, French horn and harp.

The finale, a fast and temperamental Presto con fuoco, collides borrowed folkdance rhythms and a German chorale-like figure from Ben-Haim’s unpublished oratorio Das Buch Joram with impressively vigorous immediacy.

Excellent booklet notes (with musical illustrations) by Michael Wolpe and characteristically vivid Chandos sound contribute to an auspicious launch for the Music in Israel series.

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Composer: Paul Ben-Haim
Works: Symphony No 1, Pastorale Variée, Pan
Performers: Claudia Barainsky s, John Bradbury cl, BBC Philharmonic/Omer Meir Wellber
Label: Chandos CHAN20169

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