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More discoveries from the ARC Ensemble

Mazzolini Hall
03/05/2013 -  & March 10, 2013 (London)
Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 28
Szymon Laks: Piano Quintet on Popular Polish Themes
Felix Mendelssohn: Sonata Movement in D Minor (arr. David Louie)
Paul Ben-Haim: Piano Quartet in C Minor

The ARC Ensemble: Joaquin Valdepenas (clarinet), Erika Raum, Benjamin Bowman (violin), Steven Dann (viola), Bryan Epperson (cello), Dianne Werner, David Louie (piano)

(Courtesy of the Royal Conservatory)

For some years now a major project of the Artists of the Royal Conservatory has been to revive lost music from the early twentieth century with their “Music in Exile” series. Many musicians (notably, but not only, Jews) were murdered, suppressed or forced into exile under totalitarian regimes. Further suppression occurred because of dogmatic pronouncements re acceptable musical style; anything hinting at romanticism was declared to be mining a vein that had been thoroughly worked out.

The excellent program notes (by ARC Artistic Director Simon Wynberg) give capsule biographies of the composers featured - and they make harrowing reading. What is important, though, is the music.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) is regarded by many as the overlooked third of great 20th century Russian composers (the others being Shostakovitch and Prokofiev). He was actually Polish and happened to be in the Soviet Union when the Germans invaded and he eventually settled in Moscow. Yet further travails found him in the Lubyanka Prison when Stalin’s death brought a reprieve. (Incidentally, this concert took place on the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death.)

The Clarinet Sonata was composed in 1945 and premiered in Moscow in 1946. One might expect a work reflecting recent cataclysmic events, although a clarinet sonata might not be the best choice to do this. The work is in three movements: allegro-allegretto-adagio. At first it sounds as if the pianist (Dianne Werner) is channeling Tchaikovsky while the clarinetist (the esteemed Joaquin Valdepenas) has discovered Benny Goodman. The Allegretto has a plaintive ending. Concluding with an Adagio movement is a Weinberg trait.

Szymon Laks (1901-1983) was also a Polish Jew but he moved to Paris in the 1930s. This of course did not prevent his being seized by the Nazis and he famously wound up heading the prisoners’ orchestra in Auschwitz. His Piano Quintet on Popular Polish Themes is based on his Third String Quartet, which was premiered in Paris in November, 1945. Like the Weinberg piece it is a piquant product of the composer’s musical background - in this case, Paris of the 1930s. The third movement, Vivace non troppo, is particularly ingratiating with its use of pizzicato.

The two pieces in the first part of the program, no matter how well-crafted, are over-shadowed by knowledge of contemporary events and the composers’ lives. The two works in the second half had more of a gripping impact on their own.

“Music in Exile” seems an odd place for a piece by Felix Mendelssohn, but Nazi authorities tried to render him a non-person in German history and his manuscripts were dispersed. This sonata fragment was composed when he was just 15 or 16 - but we mustn’t forget he was working on fully mature works like the string octet at this time. ARC member David Louie has taken this uncompleted (and unpublished) movement and created his own completion of it. The result is a hauntingly lovely Adagio opening followed by an exciting Allegro molto. Louie and Benjamin Bowman really set the place on fire with this; it could well become widely performed.

(David Louie’s realization of the work is available for download.)

Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) was born Paul Frankenberger in Munich. After serving in World War I, he established a flourishing career as a composer and conductor in Bavaria before leaving for Palestine (after the Nazi takeover) where he eventually became an eminent figure in the musical life of Israel. His Piano Quartet in C Minor of 1921 is full-blooded late romanticism - the movements contain descriptives such as energico and molto espressivo; the work repeatedly rises to stormy heights. Rather oddly, it seems that Ben-Haim himself more or less abandoned the work as he moved on to another compositional style in his new life in what became Israel.

By the way, the ARC Ensemble has recorded a full CD of Ben-Haim’s works in the conservatory’s Koerner Hall; it will be released this summer on the Chandos label.

The ARC Ensemble will be repeating this concert at London’s Wigmore Hall on Sunday, March 10. This will mark the first time since 1932 that Ben-Haim’s Piano Quartet has been performed in Europe.

Michael Johnson



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