Recorded in January and February 2003 in Grosser Sendesaal, NDR, Hanover
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: June 2004
CD No: CPO 999 922-2
Duration: 62 minutes
I seem to have the knack of coming into CPO’s cycles at the end! The first three symphonies of Germany-born Israeli composer Josef Tal have already been issued. On the strength of this release, one needs to backtrack decisively. Tal was born in 1910, in Pinne, which is now part of Poland.
Tal has written each of his six symphonies to date (is the nonagenarian still composing?) in a single movement. The Fourth begins in a torrent of sound and energy, and was written for the fiftieth anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic (in 1986). After the tumult, comes some angular-lyrical string writing; a saxophone ushers in something smokier, yet the dynamic is loud enough and the material consistent with what has gone before in order to sustain symphonic argument rather than present a ‘mood’; a harp suggests psalm and psaltery. The middle section is a linear development cloaked in spectral and incident-packed orchestration. A crescendo suggests an optimistic conclusion, only for a tubular bell stroke (one of alarm?) to arrest the symphony ambiguously.
Stylistically Tal has experienced and leant towards the avant-garde. He has retained a rigorous approach to structure (one no doubt already in place following his studies with Hindemith, although some compositional process owe more to Schoenberg, albeit less dogmatically); and Tal displays wit and vibrancy to leaven what might otherwise be invention dominated by angular phrases and dissonant chords. The Symphony No.4, which seems to have a secondary purpose, that of concerto for orchestra, is an impressive work of logic and fantasy.
The Fifth Symphony was written for the Berlin Philharmonic, the composer’s 80th-birthday initiating the commission; it’s a work that the Israel Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta brought to the BBC Proms shortly after the Berlin premiere. The symphony begins down in the depths with pianissimo double bass tremolos, reminiscent of Ravel’s La valse; once more the argument is concise and intense, and there is much colour and detail written into the music. There’s a strong sense of restless forward motion, and an intimation of catastrophe, after which solo instruments add one to another to achieve some sort of claw-back until dark sonorities ruminate and re-form the symphonic trajectory with urgency. The saxophone, harp and cor anglais seem to look back to their roles in the Fourth Symphony before the harp takes No.5 to unexpected disappearance. Gone!
The Sixth Symphony begins with horns discoursing; other brass joins in to extend the fanfare; the mood is both of communion and combativeness. No.6 is a reflective work, maybe consciously summing-up past achievement, yet there’s no lack of purpose. Tal delays introducing the percussion until halfway through the work’s 18 minutes; a cadenza cum dance ensues, pizzicatos add to the percussive ‘colour’. This relatively light-hearted if strictly composed ‘interlude’ is rudely shunted by the brass to allow woodwinds to intertwine, and the brass return to its earlier muscular, strident stance, the violins are intensely pained, and the epilogue grows until a side drum is left alone to decrescendo. The symphonies undergo similar journeys. Too much the same formula? Maybe, but there’s no doubting the sustained outreach, musical theatre and concentrated activity that each unleashes. Take each symphony as an entity or as an enigmatic threesome. There are no rules governing our perceptions.
The performances here are not only fastidiously prepared but radiate total conviction and have been as vividly recorded as the music warrants. This vibrant and compelling music is urgently recommended.