Alon Goldstein / Israeli Music for Piano = JOSEF TAL: Sonata; MORDECAI SETER: Moto perpetuo; BEN-ZION ORGAD: Toccata; JAN RADZYNSKI: Canto; PAUL BEN-HAIM: Music 1967 – Alon Goldstein, p. – Israel Music Institute IMI-CD-11 [Distr. by Albany], 63:46 ****:

I have to confess that this is one of those  albums that make a clear impression only after repeated listening. Or rather, for me, repeated listening dispelled most of my initial impression, which was that most of this music is rather glum. I was immediately attracted to the pieces that bookended the program: Josef Tal’s Sonata and Paul Ben-Haim’s Music 1967. These selections represented both the oldest music on the program (Tal) as well as the oldest composers, though apparently Tal’s later music inclined toward the experimental: he was the first composer in Israel to write electronic music. Of course, Ben-Haim is by far the most famous Israeli composer, and is certainly the most traditional on the current program. So I wondered: am I just an old musical reactionary, or is the later music really of lesser quality? My answer is mixed but mostly positive.

To dispense with the negative right away, I really don’t get Mordecai Seter’s Moto perpetuo (1985), and that includes the title of the work. Maybe the title is meant ironically; I’d call it, rather, Stasis perpetuis, if my Latin is accurate. (Lord, help me to know mine endings!) Pianist Alon Goldstein enthuses about the piece, saying “one feels it exists in a different existential time and space in which the temporal dimension is re-examined. Words such as timelessness, eternity, mysticism and spirituality are invoked. . . .”—that is, unless the work instead evokes the words “turgidity,” “immobility,” “interminability,” as it does for me. Unfortunately, Moto perpetuo wastes more than fifteen minutes of the listener’s time.

Stasis is certainly not a problem in Ben-Zion Orgad’s Toccata, which, true to type, is a musical perpetual motion machine. But the musical language of the piece is somewhat mystifying to these Euro-centric ears, and it took several listening sessions to accept that I was listening to a unique sound picture. And tone picture as well. Orgad explains that the work is influenced by the Arabic musical form known as a maqām, which “expresses character, mood or atmosphere, instead of a major or minor scale, and it does so by means of typical motifs or ‘tone-scapes.’” In his piece, Orgad attempts to capture the sounds of a place in the Upper Galilee region of Israel where three streams meet. The traveler who has been to that region before misses “the slow and monotonous beat of the pumps that used to pump water to the mills. The memory of the steady beat brings the past into the present and makes the landscape pulsate with its unique sound.” Perhaps I was expecting the endlessly driving, full-of-life and life-affirming music you find in classic post-Baroque toccatas from Schumann to Khachaturian but instead heard a sometimes halting, sometimes explosive, fitfully reflective work with a darkly modal melodic cast to it—as Orgad suggests, a memory piece. And one in which there is much to engage but very little to comfort the ear.

Canto (1981), the product of the youngest composer on the program, Polish-born Jan Radzynski (b. 1950), is indeed incantatory in its repetitive insistence. Radzynski explains that the work “is a fantasy in which fragments of a cantus firmus are woven into dream like sequences. . . . The idea of repetition is expressed in many ways: impulse-reverberation, echo, ostinato and reminiscence.” Goldstein adds that the musical sequences in the piece flash by in a dizzying array: “The opening broken-glass-like passage work without bars, the build-up of tension through the use of ostinato; the ironic Waltz followed by the quasi Minuet; the climatic section which dissolves into an antiphonal exploration of echoes; the idea of repetition, explored in a single repeated note getting faster (like a falling ping-pong ball). . . .” Like others of the works on the program (the Sonata, the Toccata, Ben-Haim’s series of musical preludes), Canto uses a classic form, the fantasia, but in exploratory ways that make it the most radical and forward-looking.

In the company of Canto, Tal’s Sonata (1949) and Ben-Haim’s Music 1967 sound pretty traditional, but both are immediately appealing, as I noted at the beginning of my review. There’s a certain neoclassical rigor to the Sonata that recalls Tal’s teacher Hindemith, yet there’s also a rhythmic verve in the Rondo finale that is as wildly impulsive as a Prokofiev or Bartók finale. Tal pays direct homage to his heritage in the second movement, a passacaglia on a popular Hebrew tune; but the movement also suggests that at this stage in his career he still embraced what Goldstein calls the “Mediterranean” style, which merges Middle Eastern musical materials with Western musical forms and gestures.

That merging of traditions characterized the music of Paul Ben-Haim throughout his career. His cycle of seven short preludes entitled Music 1967 is varied in mood and tempo though connected thematically by a motive composed of “a descending half-tone, and the alteration of B sharp and B natural.” As with Tal’s Sonata, compositional rigor and variety of expression are woven into a satisfying musical tapestry. There are fleeting recollections of Ben-Haim’s musical roots in Europe: as Goldstein says, the fifth piece recalls a Prokofiev march (a fairly menacing one), but there’s also a bit in the fourth movement that sounds like a passage from Petrushka, and the striding final movement is a dream-like memory of a waltz that Goldstein likens to Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales.

So there you have Alon Goldstein’s retrospective of twentieth-century Israeli music for piano: something borrowed, something new, something ultimately rather blue about this music, as if it reflects the difficult birth and continuing struggle of a nation and a people. Goldstein plays with both large technical skill and understanding, treading with assurance over the broken glass of Radzynski’s Canto, tenderly shaping the final pages of Ben-Haim’s Music 1967. Excellent, fully realistic piano sound as well from the Jerusalem Music Center. Recommended to all enthusiasts of the instrument who crave a decidedly different musical experience.

—Lee Passarella