Symphony No. 1; Pan*; Pastorale variée**
*Claudia Barainsky (soprano), **John Bradbury (clarinet); BBC Philharmonic/Omer Meir Wellber
Chandos CHAN20169 60:45 mins
Born in Germany, Paul Ben-Haim moved to Mandatory Palestine in 1933 after Hitler came to power, eventually establishing himself as a leading figure in Israeli music. The three compositions here chart Ben-Haim’s path towards maturity, reflecting influences from both Europe and the Middle East. Yet despite obvious differences in emphasis throughout the programme, the composer’s armoury remains remarkably consistent, not least in demonstrating his superb feeling for instrumental colour.
The earliest work, dating from 1932, is Pan – a gorgeously opulent symphonic poem for soprano and orchestra that derives much inspiration from Debussy and Richard Strauss. It is beautifully sung here by Claudia Barainsky with wonderfully atmospheric support from the BBC Philharmonic under its principal conductor, Omer Meir Wellber. A much more restrained aura surrounds the Pastorale variée, an extremely accessible work for solo clarinet and strings played by John Bradbury with great finesse.
The First Symphony is the most substantial work here. Composed during the early years of the Second World War, its fiercely dynamic outer movements – a combative Allegro energico and an obsessively rhythmic finale marked Presto con fuoco, performed with mesmerising urgency by Wellber and the BBC Philharmonic – surely reflect the turbulent political environment the composer faced at the time. In total contrast, the central slow movement is more lyrical and impassioned, an oasis of relative calm which inspires some tremendously eloquent playing.