Paul Ben-Haim’s Splendid Second Symphony

Review by: Jed Distler

Ct-Ben-Haim

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 9

My colleague David Hurwitz succinctly described the orchestral style of Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984)  as akin to Hindemith, but with less clunky rhythms and a bit more consonant harmony. I would extend the Hindemith analogy to Ben-Haim’s intelligent and colorful orchestration, which tellingly manifests throughout his Second Symphony, composed in 1945.

Notice, for example, the first-movement Allegro moderato’s passages featuring animated string and brass interplay with timpani punctuation, or the second-movement Allegro vivace’s delicately bristling opening and closing sections, whose pizzicato strings and deftly conversational woodwind licks evoke the spirit of the “Presentando le coppie” movement from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra without the least imitation.

The slow third movement was conceived as a reflection on the horrors of the Holocaust. Personally I find the music to be not so much bleak and tragic as gorgeously long-lined, with its lush, low lying sequences for strings, lovely clarinet and English horn solos, and other ravishing felicities. Ben-Haim’s inventiveness and sense of surprise operate at full capacity in the multi-thematic finale.

Although the three-movement Concerto Grosso from 1931 was Ben-Haim’s first orchestral work, the assured contrapuntal writing, carefully wrought climaxes, and skillful orchestration sound both masterful and fresh, except for the third-movement Chaconne’s rather uninspired and browbeating conclusion (the word “cheesy” comes to mind, but perhaps it’s more polite for me to say “youthfully awkward”).

As in its earlier CPO Ben-Haim disc, the NDR Radiophilharmonie plays superbly under the late Israel Yinon’s caring and detailed leadership. Ben-Haim’s music clearly deserves more attention than it often gets, and as such, this release is both important and most welcome.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Symphony No. 2: This One


    NDR Radiophilharmonie, Israel Yinon

  • CPO - 7776772
  • CD

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