PAUL BEN-HAIM: Joram – Katharina Persicke, sop./ Carsten Suss, tenor/ Bernd Valentin, bar./ Miklos Sebestyen, bass/ Munich Motet Choir/ Israel Philharmonic Orch./ Hayko Siemens – Helicon Classics 02-9659 (2 CDs), 47:58, 65:46 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Ben-Haim (1897-1984) is an Israeli composer born Paul Frankenburger in Munich, Germany, assisted Bruno Walter and Hans Knappertsbusch before teaching at the Shulamit Conservatory, while devoting himself to composition. He enjoyed the attention of some of the major conductors of the day, including Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein, and has a wide and very thorough discography. Ben-Haim’s music is late romantic in style, very assimilating without being in any way arcane, and has quite readily and fairly been compared to the style of Ernest Bloch. Most of his greatest pieces have been set down on disc.
Except this one, that is.
The composer considered Joram his magnum opus, and so do many experts—though I am not sure how they make that judgment before now, as the work was only performed once during the composer’s lifetime in 1978 in what was, to say the least, a very ragged and incomplete reading. However this was 45 years after it was composed, the last piece the composer completed before he left Germany in 1933. Munich saw the first truly authentic performance in 2008, marking 75 years since the infamous Crystal Night. Now we have its first-ever recording.
The piece is a sort of optimistic take on the biblical Book of Job, seen through the eyes of poet Rudolf Borchardt, born in 1877 to a Protestant family with Jewish origins. It was based on the form of the gospels and in archaic Lutheran German, and follows to a point the general story line of the perplexed Job; however, later Borchardt deviates from the story as his wife, who has landed in a state of prostitution during Job’s long absence, rises again pristine and pure and is ultimately reunited with him. The oratorio ends with the birth of the Messiah.
This recording is not everything it could be, yet is probably enough for now until some sterling ensemble takes it up, which may or may not happen for a long while. Sound-wise we have some restrictions, a rather narrow stage that sounds a little like some of the early LSO Live recordings. The singing from soloists and chorus is excellent, and the IPO plays well for the most part, though I did notice some ragged ensemble and missed notes, not unusual for a live recording, and I doubt there was any touch-up in the studio. This is a work that would benefit from surround sound, but I am not holding my breath. I can’t really comment on whether this is Ben-Haim’s “greatest” work or not, as I am a long way from knowing all of this composer’s music and the scores that Bernstein gave us are near classics at this point. But the work is moving and accessible, and the forces here do the composer honor and justice.