Melody and Variations, Op.42
Suite No.1, Op.20a
Suite No.2, Op.20b
Five Pieces, Op.34
Gila Goldstein (piano)
Reviewed by: David Wordsworth
Reviewed: October 2001
CD No: CENTAUR CRC 2506
The Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984 – he was born in Munich as Paul Frankenburger) is not a familiar name in the UK. His long career dates from the early 1920s when he graduated from the Munich Academy as a pianist and conductor. In the early 1970s a car accident made compositional activities more difficult. His catalogue includes large-scale orchestral works, cantatas and oratorios, as well as much chamber and instrumental music.
A great deal of Ben-Haim’s music, though rarely directly quoting traditional Jewish elements, is imbued with the feeling of cantillation and middle-eastern peasant music. In the piano pieces recorded here, these influences can be felt alongside the sometimes-overpowering ghosts of Bartok and Prokofiev – the finale of Suite No.1, for example, is a somewhat uncomfortably close cousin of Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro. Indeed the informative booklet notes, written by Jehoash Hirshberg, go to some considerable lengths to link Ben-Haim’s soundworld to other composers – Ravel in the Sonatina for example and, generally, to Chopinesque and Debussyian figurations.
Therein lies the problem. There is certainly nothing in the least bit disagreeable about Ben-Haim’s music; indeed, much of it is very enjoyable. It’s just that one gets the feeling to having heard it all before. Listening to this CD in a single sitting, it’s all too easy to becomes aware of the pattern: fast movements are brittle,neo-classical toccatas – with the occasional Hindemithian fugue included for good measure – while slow movements have gradual chord progressions under flowing arabesques. Most of the movements are very short; even the Sonata (dedicated to Menahem Pressler incidentally) lasts under fourteen minutes.
I am surprised not to have heard of Gila Goldstein before. She is clearly a pianist of considerable technique and virtuosity, and is easily up to the substantial demands that some of this music makes. That she is such a very fine player makes me wish I didn’t feel I was sitting on the fence about the music. There’s nothing to dislike, but for all Ben-Haim’s attractive ideas, there’s little that I am likely to rush back to. That said, for anyone curious, this CD is warmly recommended.