Pnina Salzman plays Mediterranean Piano Music = STUTSCHEWSKY: 3 Movements from Landscapes of Israel; AVIDOM: Four Impressions; BEN-HAIM: Five Pieces; SETER: Chaconne and Scherzo; BRAUN: Sonata; AVNI: Sonata No. 1 – Pnina Salzman, p. – Music in Israel

by | Apr 11, 2014 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Pnina Salzman plays Mediterranean Piano Music = STUTSCHEWSKY: 3 Movements from Landscapes of Israel;  AVIDOM: Four Impressions; BEN-HAIM: Five Pieces, Op. 34; SETER: Chaconne and Scherzo; BRAUN: Sonata; AVNI: Sonata No. 1 – Pnina Salzman, piano – Music in Israel by Helicon MII-CD-19, 73:33 [Distr. By Albany] ****:

Pnina Salzman (1922-2006) came to be known as “The first lady of the piano in Israel.” Salzman garnered praise that lauded her being “considered the first Israel-born pianist to achieve international fame”—these and similar phrases color many writings about Pnina Salzman, who received the Israel Prize in 2006 for her contribution to the country’s musical life. She was the first renowned Israeli pianist to conquer concert stages in Europe and Asia in the early 1940s, even before the establishment of the State of Israel. She was the only pianist who exceeded two hundred performances with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

An avowed Zionist, Salzman willfully accepted a limited international reputation by remaining in Israel and accepting only posts that would not draw her away from her chosen land. The composers Salzman performs on this collection of performances from the Jerusalem Music Centre (25-2 November 1992; 26 January 1993) share a common bond in a “Mediterranean” style that demands bright light, clarity, modality, rhythmic rigidity and repetition, and doxological chant and incantation. The opening set of Landscapes of Israel (1950) by Joachim Stutschewsky (1891-1982) testify to a talent that once belonged to a member of the string quartet founded in 1921 Vienna by Rudolf Kolisch. Galilee uses an ostinato pattern and an impressionistic syntax reminiscent of Ibert or Ravel. Jerusalem bathes in misty arpeggios that urge themselves to modal clarity. Salzman invokes various strumming techniques that add color to the otherwise dense textures that occasionally hint at Debussy. It breaks into a dance-song before it concludes. The last landscape, Valley of Jezreel, combines percussion and drone bass sounds in order to beckon another folk dance idiom.

Menahem Avidom (1908-1955) combined a life of music and political activism, including his serving as Secretary General of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, 1945-1952. Avidom’s Five Impressions (Salzman plays four) were composed 1947-1949. Grief (1949) is set in two-part counterpoint and sounds at first sounds like a moment from Mussorgsky in low pedal points. Avidom utilizes the tritone to accentuate the effect. In Memoriam (1948), with its Alberti-bass, sings a romantic song that could be attributed to a modern Mendelssohn. Pastourelle shifts modes and dissonances in its jazzy parlando, including the tritone and the perfect fifth. For his Danse-Impromptu, Avidom invokes the interval of the Phrygian second as a connecting device, mostly in staccato motion, an Arabic dance of some seductive power.

Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) wrote his Five Pieces in 1943. The series of two-minute miniatures indicates a clear, Eastern modal influence. Pastorale may have a feeling for the soil, but its dominant ethos belongs to the Oriental maqam. Salzman once called Ben-Haim “a composer who has the sense of beauty, love, and poetry.” Intermezzo likes to exploit tonal clusters in pedal points and fourths. It sounds like Arabic Scriabin. An array of competing scales suffuses Capriccio agitato, played quickly by Salzman, ever glittering in whole tones or pentatonics, as required. The “song without words” in this group belongs to the Canzonetta, symmetrical except for its middle section. The longest piece, Toccata, concludes the set in uniform motor propulsion, the sound deliberately suggestive of the strings of the oriental qanun. Some of the patterns sound Moorish by way of Granados as well as by Prokofiev. The interior metrics shift wildly, but the challenge appears moot to Ms. Salzman’s wickedly deft fingers.

Three extensive works conclude the disc. First, Salzman plays Chaconne and Scherzo (1956) by Mordecai Seter (1916-1994). Salzman claims that “his music has no body, only soul and thought. I played all of his chamber music with piano; it was hard, musically, not technically, but most rewarding.” The music opens with a theme and five variations and an ensuing Scherzo. Salzman’s piano must sound alternatively like a high flute or xylophone, a harp, a percussion instrument, all in a style reminiscent of Bach or the French school of neo-Classicists, like Dukas, Roussel, and Franck. The Scherzo provides variation six, as it were, piling on the three upper voices of the theme in cold, punishing colors and ironic fragments.

Yehezkel Braun (b. 1922) has had a deep fascination with both Gregorian Chant and Jewish doxology. His 1957 Sonata conforms to classical outlines. The Allegro con brio could be attributed to Prokofiev. Sarcastic and melancholy, the movement connects two main subjects. Salzman conveys a lyrical clarity to the proceedings. Adagio offers a step-wise, ternary song. It could be Braun’s answer to Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair. The Rondo utilizes the second movement subject, but its glittering capacities emerge under Salzman’s bravura fingers, which ultimately transform the subject into a moving chorale.

Last, Salzman performs the 1961 Sonata No. 1 by Tzvi Avni (b. 1927), a piece the composer assigns to his “tonal-folkloristic” works. The opening Allegro molto centers on D, but on its modal capacity in the Phrygian or Dorian character. When Avni concludes the first movement, he builds a huge chord of thirds that converge the tonal centers that have competed throughout. Avni admits that, like Debussy, he found the gamelan orchestra of Indonesia inspirational. His Andante con moto second movement constructs a lengthy ternary song built on a pedal C and Eastern melodic contours. His central section has Salzman play spread fourths in fast, compulsive riffs. The da capo unites the two opposed elements, tranquillo and molto espessivo. The Allegro ritmico demands a virtuoso technique, assigning a choppy figure for an asymmetrical dance that soon becomes punishingly fugal.  Avni wants Bach and Bartok to inform his stretti, moving to a highly stylized coda that proves composer and performer consummately fulfill each other’s requirements.

–Gary Lemco

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