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Bloch: Baal Shem Suite, Etc / Shaham, Erez

Release Date: 03/20/2007 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 67571   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Ernest BlochPaul Ben-Haim
Performer:  Arnon ErezHagai Shaham
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 14 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BLOCH Baal Shem. Suite hébraïque. Solo Violin Suites: No. 1; No. 2. BEN-HAÏM Solo Violin Sonata in g. Berceuse sfaradite. Improvisation and Dance Hagai Shaham (vn); Arnon Erez (pn) HYPERION 67571 (74:23)

The vibrancy of Hagai Shaham’s tone and his willingness to engage in expressive devices, apparent from the first notes of Ernest Bloch’s Read more style="font-style:italic">Baal Shem , promises visceral performances of commanding penetration. That the tone, however refined, also possesses a sprinkling of grit hardly detracts from the strong-mindedness of his readings. Shaham recorded the works for violin and piano in London and the solo pieces in Jerusalem, within a 10-month period during 2004. The artists aren’t strangers to, or beginners to recording Bloch’s music: in 28:6 I reviewed their readings of the composer’s First and Second Violin Sonatas, as well as several short pieces, on Hyperion 67439. In fact, in that review, I expressed the hope that they’d eventually continue the series by recording Baal Shem and Suite hébraïque , as well as the earlier Fantasy . Although they haven’t brought forth the Fantasy , Shaham’s fulfilled the other hopes and added the solo suites.

Baal Shem —the “Nigun” or second movement of which has become a concert piece in its own right, having been played even by violinists so far removed from it in temperament as Arthur Grumiaux—isn’t just a sandwich containing a popular filling. I remember fondly Isaac Stern’s old recording of the work; but involving and immediate as that LP may have been, it didn’t enjoy the benefit of modern digital recording, so Stern’s violin, always almost startlingly in the fore, emerged without the clear definition of Shaham’s. But musically, Shaham is striking, too, balancing ardent and reflective passages in the first movement, “Vidui,” and bringing more than a perfunctory sense of exaltation to the suite’s last, “Simchas Torah,” which he concludes with breathtaking panache. In the Suite hébraïque , he characterizes each of the movements so strongly that a new listener wouldn’t even need to read their titles to divine their programmatic content. The recorded sound (London) presents Shaham, and Erez too, close up—capturing just enough extraneous violin sound almost to make it seem as though he’s in the same room.

The two solo suites reflect a different ethos. Bloch had studied the violin with Eugène Ysaÿe; and, just as his master had attempted to update Bach’s polyphony both technically and harmonically, so did his student. But Bloch’s two four-movement works, except for the Prélude that opens the First and the Energico of the Second, consist of movements that bear mere tempo designations. Their content is more severe than Ysaÿe’s; not so chromatic, they’re nevertheless more far-ranging harmonically. Yet Bach’s personality lurks in fast movements like the last two of the First Suite and the Moderato of the Second. I reviewed Mischa Lefkowitz’s analog recording of these suites from 1989 (Laurel 834) in 29:6; his performances, however dedicated, sounded “abrasively raw” (both violinist and recorded sound). On the contrary, while Shaham makes the double stops of these suites ring decisively and with pure intonation, he never produces a sound that’s either abrasive or raw, thanks perhaps to the Jerusalem engineers. That these suites haven’t captured the imagination of violinists as have Baal Shem or even the two sonatas for violin and piano may be a reflection of what I’ve characterized as their severity; but, at just over 11 minutes each (Lefkowitz’s versions last under 10 minutes each), they hold a listener’s interest and sound as though they should be as grateful to the performer as to the listener.

On the recording, Bloch’s two suites lead directly to Paul Ben-Haïm’s Solo Violin Sonata. Although Shaham’s the same violinist recording in the same studio (Jerusalem), the works themselves provide a startling contrast from Bloch’s, similar to Dorothy’s arrival in Oz, when the sepias of the opening sequences of Wizard suddenly broaden to encompass the spectrum. The booklet notes, written by Alexander Knapp (for Bloch) and by Malcolm Miller (for Ben-Haïm), provide exceptionally detailed and helpful background, including sources for Bloch’s compositions in Yiddish and Hebrew song. Miller makes much of the blending of neo-Classicism and the “Eastern Mediterranean” style in Ben-Haïm’s works, and it’s perhaps this blending that colors his Solo Sonata. Hagai Shaham sounds as much at home in this kind of ethnic material as in the hushed sections of the second movement or in the bold, virtuosic gestures of the third. By contrast with the Solo Sonata, Ben-Haïm’s two pieces for violin and piano present contrasting faces of romanticism, the Berceuse sfaradite , a rich melodious outpouring, and the Improvisation and Dance , a flamboyant showpiece.

Those drawn in any way to these composers should find Shaham’s advocacy convincing. Strongly recommended, however, to all kinds of listeners.

FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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Works on This Recording

Baal shem by Ernest Bloch
Performer:  Arnon Erez (Piano), Hagai Shaham (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1923; USA 
Suite hébraïque by Ernest Bloch
Performer:  Arnon Erez (Piano), Hagai Shaham (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; USA 
Sonata for Violin solo in G minor, Op. 44 by Paul Ben-Haim
Performer:  Hagai Shaham (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; Israel 
Improvisation and Dance for Violin and Piano, Op. 30 by Paul Ben-Haim
Performer:  Arnon Erez (Piano), Hagai Shaham (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939; Israel 
Berceuse sfaradite by Paul Ben-Haim
Performer:  Arnon Erez (Piano), Hagai Shaham (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Suite for Violin solo no 1 by Ernest Bloch
Performer:  Hagai Shaham (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1958; USA 
Suite for Violin solo no 2 by Ernest Bloch
Performer:  Hagai Shaham (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1958; USA 

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