Arnold Schoenberg firmly believed that Joseph Achron was the most underrated composer of his generation. Schoenberg praised his originality and claimed Achron’s music was destined for eternity. Yet, despite his enthusiastic praise, Joseph Achron never became a household name.
Violin buffs no doubt know his Hebrew Melody, a much loved encore of many violinists, starting with Heifetz.
Hebrew Melody, here played by Josef Hassid:
Hebrew Melody is inspired by a theme Achron heard as a young boy in a synagogue in Warsaw. It is one of his earliest compositions, dating from 1911, and his first “Jewish” work. In the year he composed it Achron joined the Society for Jewish Folk Music.
But let’s start at the beginning. Joseph Achron was born in 1886 in Russia and died 57 years later in Los Angeles. His mother was an estimable singer, and his father was a cantor who also played the violin. Joseph received his first violin lessons from him, but soon he was replaced by professional teachers. At age eight he gave his first performance, and by the time he was eighteen, he had finished his first compositions.
His career as a composer properly started in the twenties of the last century. In Saint Petersburg, Achron joined the composers of the “New Jewish School.” Several years later he moved to Berlin, where he got acquainted with the works of the French impressionists, and the Second Viennese School.
In 1924 he made a trip of several months to Palestine. He not only performed there, but also collected a huge variety of folk music he discovered there. The notes he took during this trip were later used for several of his compositions. In his Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 60 (1925) several Yemenite themes can be heard.
In 1925 he moved to New York where he was invited to compose music for the Yiddish theatre. Achron wrote the music for several of their productions, including Stempenyu, a play by Sholem Aleichem about a Jewish violinist.
The Stempenyu Suite, performed by Karen Bentley Pollick and Jascha Nemtsov:
In the thirties Joseph Achron moved to Hollywood, where he died in 1943.
Much of Achron’s music still awaits discovery by wider circles, although numerous attempts have been made to rekindle interest in it. Since the nineties of the last century two CDs came out with compositions for violin and piano. Different as they are, both interpretations are highly valuable, if only for the opportunity they provide to finally get to know – and appreciate – his compositions.
On the ASV label we hear Miriam Kramer, a young English violinist, once named ‘United Kingdom’s Performer of the Year’. Her CD starts with a slightly hesitant rendition of the 1ère Suite en Style Ancien from 1906 ( a world premiere recording). From Sonata No. 1, Op. 29 onwards her tone gets steadier and in Children’s Suite it is possible to enjoy her without any reservations. Her pianist, the Dutch Simon Over, provides excellent support. The reason I am not overenthusiastic lies not with Kramer, but with Hagai Shaham, the soloist on the second Achron CD.
(Joseph Achron: Music for Violin & Piano; Miriam Kramer, Simon Over; ASV CD QS 6235)
Hagai Shaham (not related to Gil) is an Israeli from the school of the famous violin teacher Ilona Feher. His tone is warm and dark and he plays with bravura and agility, and plenty of schmaltz when necessary. Unashamed enjoyment from start to finish! If you do not fall in love with this CD, then I give up.
Shaham’s regular accompanist is Arnon Erez, also from Israel. The textbook is in two languages: English and Yiddish (Stempenyu. The violin music of Joseph Achron; Hagai Shaham, Arnon Erez; Biddulph LAW 021)
Fifteen years after their Biddulph recording Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez turned their attention to Achron’s music for a second time. In 2012 they recorded the Complete Suites for Violin and Piano for Hyperion, including the Stempenyu Suite and, of course, the Hebrew Melody (Hyperion CDA67841).
English translation Remko Jas