Joodse muziek

Paul Ben-Haim’s Evocation: what a discovery

Ben Haim Evocation

Paul Ben -Haim, who was born in Munich in 1897 as Paul Frankenburger and died almost 90 years later in Tel Aviv, remains a great unknown to many music lovers. This is a great pity, because the oeuvre of this sadly forgotten composer is very diverse and most exciting. At one time he was totally immersed in the German Romantic tradition before he almost radically broke with it when he left his native country in 1933.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor Paul Ben-Haim

He began his new life composers life in what was then known as the British Mandate of Palestine by changing his name, after which he also adapted his compositions to his new homeland. Starting in 1933, most of his works were influenced and inspired by Jewish, Israeli and Arabic melodies.

Between 1939 and 1949 Ben-Haim accompanied the at that time extremely famous folk singer Bracha Zefira. Zefira, who was of Yemeni origin, had a great influence on the musical life in what was then Palestine. It was for her that he composed the Berceuse Sfaradite, a song which had become one of her greatest successes.

Bracha Zefira:

The Violin Concerto, which dates from 1950, is probably Ben-Haim’s best-known composition, in no small part as a result of the great recording by Itzhak Perlman. The CD is still on the market, I believe, but as far as I know the Concerto is only rarely performed. Why?

Three Studies for Solo Violin is Ben-Haim’s last violin composition, dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin in 1981. Splendid. But I was most struck by the completely unknown Evocation from 1942, a work which has its premiere here and which really gave me goose bumps. Wow.

Evocation live:

Itamar Zorman, the young Israeli violinist who won the 2011 prize in the Tchaikovsky competition, has immersed himself in the composer and his work. Thanks to him, this album was compiled and released. He plays these works as if his life depends on them. He believes in them and he communicates that belief more than convincingly.

Zorman about Ben-Haim:

The accompaniment by Amy Yang (piano) and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Philippe Bach is first-rate as well

Paul Ben-Haim
Evocation. Poem for violin and orchestra, op. 32, Three Songs without Words, Violin Concerto, Three studies, Berceuse sfaradite, Toccata from Five Pieces for Piano.
Itamar Zorman (violin), Amy Yang (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Philippe Bach.

Translated with

In Dutch: Evocation van Paul Ben-Haim is een ware ontdekking

More Ben-Haim: PAUL BEN-HAIM


Evocation van Paul Ben-Haim is een ware ontdekking

Ben Haim Evocation

Paul Ben -Haim, de in 1897 in München als Paul Frankenburger geboren en bijna 90 jaar later in Tel Aviv gestorven componist is nog steeds een grote onbekende voor veel muziekliefhebbers. Zo ontzettend jammer, want het oeuvre van de jammerlijk vergeten componist is zeer divers en meer dan spannend. Ooit totaal ondergedompeld in de Duitse romantische traditie brak hij er vrijwel radicaal mee toen hij in 1933 zijn geboorteland verliet.

Zijn nieuwe componistenleven in wat toen het Britsmandaat Palestina heette begon hij met het veranderen van zijn naam, waarna hij ook zijn composities aan zijn nieuwe vaderland aanpaste. Vanaf 1933 werden de meeste van zijn werken beïnvloed en geïnspireerd door Joodse, Israëlische en Arabische melodieën.

Tussen 1939 en 1949 begeleidde Ben-Haim de toen zeer beroemde volkszangeres Bracha Zefira. Zefira, die van Jemenitische oorsprong was had een grote invloed op het muziekleven in het toenmalige Palestina. Het was voor haar dat hij de Berceuse Sfaradite componeerde, een lid dat één van haar grootste successen was geworden.

Bracha Zefira:

Het uit 1950 stammende vioolconcert is wellicht Ben-Haims bekendste compositie, niet in de laatste plaats door de geweldige opname van Itzhak Perlman. De cd is nog steeds in de handel, denk ik, maar het concerto wordt bij mijn weten maar amper uitgevoerd. Waarom?

De Three Studies for Solo Violin is Ben-Haims laatste vioolcompositie, in 1981 opgedragen aan Yehudi Menuhin. Schitterend. Maar het meest getroffen werd ik door de totaal onbekende  Evocation uit 1942, een werk dat hier zijn primeur beleeft en mij echt kippenvel bezorgde. Wow.

Evocation live:

Itamar Zorman, de jonge Israëlische violist die in 2011 de prijswinnaar was van de Tsjaikovski-competitie heeft zich in de componist en zijn werk ‘ingegraven’. Het is aan hem te danken dat dit album werd samengesteld en uitgebracht. Hij speelt de werken alsof zijn leven ervan afhangt. Hij gelooft er in en dat geloof geeft hij meer dan geloofwaardig door.


Zorman over Ben-Haim:

Ook de begeleiding door Amy Yang (piano) en het BBC National Orchestra of Wales o.l.v. Philippe Bach is van een grote klasse.

Paul Ben-Haim
Evocation voor viool en orkest, op. 32, Three Songs without words voor viool en piano,  Vioolconcert, Three studies voor vioolsolo, Berceuse sfaradite voor viool en piano, Toccata uit Five Pieces for piano
Itamar Zorman (viool), Amy Yang (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales o.l.v. Philippe Bach



Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656), King David Playing the Harp (1611), Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Holland

A question of conscience: is there such a thing as Jewish music? If so, what is it? Is it klezmer?  The Chassidic Nigunim? The Spanish romanceros, the Yiddish songs, the synagogal chants, the psalms? And: can classical music be Jewish? Is it up to the composer? Is the music Jewish if the composer is Jewish? Or is it due to the themes used by him/her? A small quest.

Music played an important role in the lives of the ancient Hebrews. Just like most peoples of the East they were very musical and music, dance and singing were of great importance to them: both in daily life and in the synagogal services. They also played different instruments: for example, one of the women of Solomon brought more than a thousand different musical instruments from Egypt.

After the destruction of The Temple all instruments disappeared from the synagogues- except for the sjofar – and only in the 19th century did they return there. Unfortunately there is little written music from before the year 1700. However, in 1917 the oldest known music manuscript to date was found – it dates from around



The best-known prayer from the Jewish liturgy is undoubtedly Kol Nidre: a request for forgiveness and for the annulment of all vows made to God and to oneself during the past year. The prayer was said to have originated before the destruction of the Temple, but there are also legends that put the origin of the prayer in the hands of the Marranos (Spanish Jews, who converted to the Catholic faith under the pressure of the Inquisition, but remained Jewish at heart).

It is certain that Rabbi Jehuda Gaon already introduced Col Nidre in his synagogue in Sura in 720. It is also a fact that the melody, as we know it, has some affinity with a well-known Catalan song. Over the years it has been arranged by several cantors, the most famous version dates from 1871 and was made by Abraham Baer.

The melody became a source of inspiration for many composers: the best known of them is the work for cello and orchestra by Max Bruch.

The motifs of Kol Nidre can also be found in Paul Dessau’s symphony and in the fifth movement of the String Quartet Op. 131 by Ludwig van Beethoven. And then we should not forget Arnold Schönberg’s “Kol Nidre” for speaking voice, choir and orchestra. He composed it in 1939, commissioned by one of the Jewish organizations.


Jewish folk music cannot be grouped together under one denominator and has many traditions: after their dispersion Jews ended up in different parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. The greatest development of their own culture manifested itself strangely enough in places where Jews had the least freedom. Jewish folk music was actually music from the ghetto. Where Jews lived in reasonable freedom, their own “self” faded away.

In the countries around the Mediterranean Sea lived the so-called Sephardim (from Sfarad, Hebrew for Spain). They sang their novelceros in Ladino, a kind of corrupted Spanish. After their expulsion from Spain and later Portugal, they were influenced by the music of their new host country.

Below: ‘Por Que Llorax Blanca Nina’, a Sephardic song from Sarajevo.

In countries such as Poland and Russia, Jews lived in a constant fear of persecution that often degenerated into pogroms. Chassidism emerged as a kind of “counter-reaction”, a movement based on mysticism, spiritualism and magical doctrines. It proclaimed the joy of life, a kind of bliss, which could be achieved through music, dance and singing. Only in this way could direct contact with God be achieved. Hasidic music was strongly influenced by Polish, Russian and Ukrainian folklore. With later also the music of vaudevilles and the waltzes of Strauss. However, the character of the works remained Jewish.

Bratslav nigun – Jewish tune of Bratslav (by Vinnytsia), Ukraine:

In turn, the Chassidic melodies have had an enormous influence on classical composers: just think of Baal Shem by Ernest Bloch or Trois chansons hebraïques by Ravel.

Below: Isaac Stern plays ‘Baal Shem’ by Bloch:



Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection.

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 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. 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. 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 the 1930s he fled, like Schoenberg, Korngold and many other Jewish composers from Europe, to Hollywood, where he died in 1943.

Jossif Hassid plays Jewish Melody by Achron:


As early as the end of the nineteenth century a ‘Jewish national school of music’ was established in Petersburg (and later in Moscow). The composers united in it tried to compose music that would be faithful to their Jewish roots. Their music was anchored in the Jewish traditions of a mainly Hasidic nigun (melody).

The movement was not limited to Russia, think of the Swiss Ernest Bloch and the Italian Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco who, in search of their roots, developed a completely individual, ‘Jewish style of composing’.


Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Synagogal songs were a source of inspiration for Sacred Service by Bloch, Sacred Service for the Sabbath Eve by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Service Sacré pour le samedi matin by Darius Milhaud and The Song of Songs by Lucas Foss.


Darius Milhaud

Below Darius Milhaud: Service Sacré pour le Samedi Matin:

Castelnuovo-Tedesco also used the old Hebrew poetry of the poet Moses-Ibn-Ezra, which he used for his song cycle The Divan of Moses Ibn Ezra:

In the USA it was (among others) Leonard Bernstein, who very deliberately used Jewish themes in his music (Third symphony, Dybbuk Suite, A Jewish Legacy).

Less well known are Paul Schoenfield and his beautiful viola concerto King David Dancing Before the Ark:

And Marvin David Levy who used Sephardic motifs in his cantata Canto de los Marranos:

The Argentinean Osvaldo Golijov (1960, La Plata) combines Jewish liturgical music and klezmer with the tangos of Astor Piazzolla in his compositions, both classical and film music. He often works with the clarinettist David Krakauer and for the Kronos Quartet he has composed a very intriguing work The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind:



Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s once brilliant career took a dive after the official party paper criticized one of his operas in 1936. Shostakovich responded with his powerful Fifth Symphony.

The reason why the non-Jewish Shostakovich used Jewish elements in his music is not entirely clear, but at least it produced beautiful music. He wrote his piano trio op.67 as early as 1944. At the first performance, the last movement, the ‘Jewish part’, had to be repeated. It was also the last time it was played during Stalinism:

In 1948 he composed a song cycle for soprano, mezzo-soprano and tenor From Jewish Folk Poetry – recorded many times and (rightly!) very popular.

Old Melodia recording of the cycle:

In 1962 he composed the 13th symphony Babi Yar, after a poem by Yevgeny Yevchenko. Babi Yar is the name of a ravine in Kiev, where in 1941 more than 100,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

In 1990, the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music Foundation was established to record all the treasures of Jewish music composed in the course of American history. The archive now consists of more than 700 recorded musical works, divided into 20 themes.

The CDs are distributed worldwide by the budget label Naxos. No one interested in the (history of) Jewish music should ignore them.

* This sentence is mentioned on the memorial stone, placed at the Muiderberg cemetery, in memory of the conductor Sam Englander, murdered by the Nazis, and his Amsterdam Jewish Choir of the Great Synagogue.

Translated with



Voice in the Wilderness: music as salvation

Wallfisch BBC

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch ©BBC

Music can save your life. Literally. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch has survived Auschwitz. And also Bergen Belsen. She knows for sure that music was the cause of this. She was 16 when she was arrested. Her parents were already dead, but she didn’t know that yet.


Young Anita played the cello and once in Auschwitz she was deployed in the Women’s Orchestra, which was conducted by Alma Rosé, Gustav Mahler’s niece. After the war she came to London, married pianist Peter Wallfisch and was a co-founder of the English Chamber Orchestra.

Her son, Raphael, is also a cellist. A famous one too, with many recordings to his name. And his son, Benjamin, is a conductor. Father and son Wallfisch made a recording together, which they dedicated to their relatives who were killed in the camps. The CD was released just before Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January 2014.

wallfisch nimbus

It has become a surprising CD, because besides Bloch’s almost inevitable Schelomo also his rarely played Voice in the Wilderness is included and Ravel’s Kaddish follows André Caplet’s Epiphanie (d’après une légende éthiopienne). The latter escapes me a bit, it feels like the odd one out. I have to admit that I have no affinity with the work whatsoever. It just ripples on.

Instead I would have preferred to hear Baal-Shem by Bloch. Or something from Joseph Achron. Or Alexander Krein. Or the other two Mélodies hébraiques by Ravel. And even if I prefer the sung version of ‘Kaddish’ (can I make a recommendation? Gerard Souzay!) I have to admit that Raphael Wallfisch with his cello stole my heart. But the most beautiful thing is the orchestra. Soft. Dear. Loving.

Raphael Wallfisch discusses his Jewish music release:


I am often asked if there is such a thing as Jewish music ….. Well, there certainly is! Just take Ernest Bloch. He was born in 1880 in Geneva in an assimilated family. Around the age of twentyfive he became interested in everything to do with Judaism and translated it into his language – music. “I’m interested in the Jewish soul” he wrote to Edmund Fleg, cantor and librettist of his opera Macbeth. “I want to translate all this into music.”

He developed a very personal style: his compositions reflect the atmosphere of Hebrew chant, without actually being a literal imitation of it. His intention was not to reconstruct old Hebrew music, but to write his own, good music, because, as he said, he was not an archaeologist. He succeeded.

Ernest Bloch – Voice in the Wilderness; Schelomo. Rhapsody hébraïque
André Caplet – Epiphany (d’après une légende éthiopienne)
Maurice Ravel – Mélodie hébraïque, Kaddish
Raphael Wallfisch, cello
BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch
Nimbus NI 5913

Translated with

In Dutch:
Muziek als redding. Voice in the Wilderness

Shura Lipovsky: diva van het Yiddishe Lied

Shura Lipovsky concertfoto

Zij is zonder meer één van de belangrijkste personen achter de revival van de Joodse muziek en het Joodse lied: Shura Lipovsky. Woensdagavond 18 februari 2011 gaf ze een onvergetelijk concert in het Concertgebouw. Een diva die alleen met de grootsten is te vergelijken.

Na de oorlog had je in Amsterdam nog het cabaret ‘Li-La-Lo’ en in Rotterdam bezorgde Leo Fuld menig toeschouwer kippenvel en tranen in de ogen. Maar eind jaren zeventig was dat wel voorbij.

En toen verscheen zij op het toneel: Shura Lipovsky. Lang voordat de zak met klezmer openbarstte en de ‘Joodse muziek’ (de aanhalingstekens zijn zo bedoeld) hot en hype werd, begon ze te werken aan de revival van de vergeten liedjes van onder andere Mordechai Gebirtig.

Ze zong op het allereerste Joods Muziek Festival in Kraków, trad aanvankelijk op in het kleine circuit, maar maakte daarna naam én cd’s.

Shura Lipovsky en haar ensemble tijdens het 24ste Joodscultuur Festival in Kraków.

Een paar jaar was het een beetje stil rond haar, maar nu was zij er weer. En hoe! Haar stem is mooier dan ooit, haar voordracht zowat perfect en haar uitstraling meer dan charismatisch. Ze is een mooie vrouw met een weelderige bos krullen en ze beheerst de bühne vanaf haar eerste opkomst. Een diva die alleen met de grootsten is te vergelijken. Denk aan Callas of Oum Khaltoum.

Shura Novaya shira

Haar programma dat zij in 2011 naar het Concertgebouw bracht heette ‘Novaya Shira’. ‘Novaya’ betekent in het Russisch ‘het nieuwe’ en ‘Shira’ staat in het Hebreeuws voor ‘poëzie’, maar ook voor ‘gezang’.

Het meest verrast werd ik door het repertoire dat ze zong en waarvan ik dacht het door en door te kennen. Niet dus. Op een paar nummers na kende ik geen van de door haar gezongen liederen, allemaal uit Rusland afkomstig.

Of het over de oude ‘Matjoesjka Rassiya’ van de tsaren ging of de nieuwe orde van Stalin en de zijnen, één ding was duidelijk: gevaar lag op de loer. Als Jood mocht je je niet in grote steden vestigen, je liep de kans om voor 25 (of nog meer!) jaar het leger in te moeten en aan de horizon lagen de kampen van Siberië. Maar de mensen hadden elkaar lief, trouwden, kregen kinderen en… maakten revolutie.

Af en toe deed Lipovsky mij aan Esther Ofarim denken, wat mij betreft het grootste compliment mogelijk. Het mooiste kwam dat tot uiting in ‘Ikh un di velt’ (Ik en de wereld) van Reisen en Rauch.

Het is onmogelijk om al de liederen hier te bespreken, dus ik noem er maar een paar. Bijvoorbeeld het ontroerende ‘Di Varone’ (De Kraai), een traditionele melodie naar een tekst van E. Chrony, dat later door Sjostakovitsj in zijn cyclus ‘Uit de Joodse Poëzie’ werd gebruikt. Of ‘Shvartse kats’ (zwarte kat), een geestelijke satire op Stalin.

Lipovsky zong zeer ingetogen, a capella ‘Ikh hob gehert fun metschen’ (Ik heb gehoord van mensen), een anoniem lied uit het begin van het Sovjet-tijd. En ze raakte me zeer met ‘Aleyn in veg’ (Eenzaam op weg), naar een gedicht van Lermontov.

Het recital eindigde met een in perfect Russisch gezongen zigeunerliedje, ‘Sivodnya ya lyubyu’ (Vandaag heb ik lief). Hierbij moest ik aan Vertinski denken, de Russische bard uit de jaren twintig en dertig van de vorige eeuw. Die van ‘Those were the days…’ Inderdaad.

Snel een traantje wegpinken, want het publiek wilde meer, en dus werden we getrakteerd op nog twee fantastische toegiften. En aangezien het Poerim was, een vrolijk Joods feest (zeg maar gerust het Joodse karnaval) ging de tweede over cadeautjes geven.


Shura VOS Bert (878h)

Lipovsky wist fantastische musici om haar heen te verzamelen, van wie één echt goed bekend was met het idioom: Bert Vos. Dat was te horen. Zijn solo’s waren duizelingwekkend in hun virtuositeit, dansant, vol humor, maar tegelijkertijd weemoedig. Precies zoals het Jiddische lied zelf is.

Op 23 december 2017 heeft Lipovsky, als eerste niet Amerikaanse/Canadese in New York de Adrienne Cooper ‘Dreaming in Yiddish’ Award ontvangen voor haar eigen composities en liedteksten en haar verdiensten voor de Jiddische cultuur.


Vocaal in de Kleine Zaal (in het kader van Rusland Festival)
Programma “Novaya Shira”- Shura Lipovsky and Friends

Bezocht op 16 februari 2011 in Het Concertgebouw in Amsterdam

Website van Shura Lipovsky:

JOSEPH ACHRON. Muziek om verliefd op te worden

Achron in Petersburg

Joseph Achron in St. Petersburg.  © Courtesy of the Departement of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection

Arnold Schoenberg was er van overtuigd dat Joseph Achron de meest onderschatte onder de hedendaagse componisten was. Schönberg roemde zijn originaliteit, hij was er dan ook zeker van dat Achrons muziek een absolute eeuwigheidswaarde had. Toch is Joseph Achron niet echt beroemd geworden.

Achron Hebrew melody

De doorgewinterde vioolliefhebber kent ongetwijfeld  zijn ‘Hebrew Melody’,  een zeer geliefde toegift uit het repertoire van menig violist, te beginnen met Heifetz.

Het werk is geïnspireerd op een thema die Achron ooit in een synagoge in Warschau hoorde toen hij nog maar een kleine jongen was. Hij schreef het in 1911, het was één van zijn eerste composities en tevens zijn ‘kleur – bekennen’: Achron werd lid van de Vereniging voor de Joodse Muziek.


Achroon kind

Joseph Achron als kind in Warschau

Maar laten wij bij het begin beginnen.  Joseph Achron werd geboren in 1886 in het Russisch Imperium en stierf zevenenvijftig jaar later in Los Angeles. Zijn moeder was een verdienstelijke zangeres en zijn vader voorzanger die ook viool speelde. Van hem kreeg Joseph zijn eerste vioollessen maar spoedig werd zijn vader vervangen door echte leraren. Op zijn achtste trad hij voor het eerst op en op zijn achttiende had hij al enkele composities op zij naam staan.

Zijn loopbaan als componist begon echter pas in de jaren twintig van de twintigste eeuw. In St. Petersburg sloot Achron zich aan bij de componisten die verenigd waren in de ‘Nieuwe Joodse School’. Een paar jaar later verhuisde hij naar Berlijn waar hij kennis maakte met de werken van de Franse impressionisten. Én met de Tweede Weense School.

In 1924 maakte hij reis van enkele maanden naar Palestina waar hij niet alleen optrad maar ook alle volksmuziek verzamelde die hij tegenkwam. De aantekeningen die hij toen maakte werden later in zijn composities gebruikt: zo zijn in zijn vioolconcert op. 30 enkele Jemenitische thema’s te bespeuren.

In 1925 vestigde hij zich in New York, waar hij kennis maakte met het Yiddisch Theater en waar hij  toneelmuziek voor verschillende producties componeerde. Onder ander voor Stempenyu, toneelstuk van Sholem Alejchem over een Joodse violist.

Stempenyu-Suite, hier gespeeld door Karen Bentley Pollick en Jascha Nemtsov:

In de jaren dertig verhuisde hij naar Hollywood waar hij in 1943 overleed.

Achron metKlemperer

Joseph Achron with Otto Klemperer (right). Klemperer conducted the premiers of Achron’s second and third violin concertos with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. © Courtesy of the Departement of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection

De muziek van Achron wacht nog steeds op haar revival al zijn er al ettelijke pogingen gedaan om haar aan de vergetelheid te onttrekken. Zo zijn er eind jaren negentig van de vorige eeuw twee cd’s uitgebracht met zijn compositie voor viool en piano. Hoe verschillend ook de interpretaties, beide zijn de moeite waard, al was het alleen maar vanwege de buitengewone kans om zijn composities te leren kennen. En waarderen.


Achron Miriam Kramer ASV

Op het label ASV horen wij Miriam Kramer, een jonge Engelse violiste, ooit uitgeroepen tot de ‘United Kingdom’s Performer of the Year’.  Haar cd begint met een ietwat aarzelende vertolking van de ‘Première Suite en Style Ancien’ uit 1906 (het betreft de wereldpremière), maar bij de vioolsonate op.29 wordt haar toon vaster en in ‘Children’s Suite’ kunnen wij al ongestoord genieten. Haar pianist, de Nederlander Simon Over, begeleidt haar uitstekend, en dat ik niet helemaal enthousiast kan worden ligt niet zozeer aan haar, als aan Hagai Shaham, de solist op de tweede cd (Joseph Achron: Music for Violin & Piano; Miriam Kramer, Simon Over; ASV CD QS 6235)

Achron Shaham Biddulph

Hagai Shaham (geen familie van Gil) is een Israëliër en stamt uit de school van de befaamde pedagoge, Ilona Feher. Zijn toon is warm en donker, hij speelt met bravoure en souplesse en – waar nodig – met een gezonde dosis schmalz. Het is schaamteloos genieten geblazen, van het begin tot het eind. Als je hier niet verliefd op wordt dan weet ik het niet..

De (vaste) begeleider van Shaham heet Arnon Erez en komt eveneens uit Israël. Het tekstboekje is tweetalig: Engels en Jiddisch (Stempenyu. The violin music of Joseph Achron; Hagai Shaham, Arnon Erez; Biddulph LAW 021)

Achron Shaham Hyperion

Vijftien jaar na hun Biddulph-opname hebben Hagai Shaham en Arnon Erez zich nog een keer over de muziek van Achron ontfermd. In 2012 hebben ze voor Hyperion Complete Suites voor viool en piano opgenomen, waaronder ook het Stempeny-Suite en uiteraard de Hebrew Melody  (Hyperion CDA67841)





Laks archief André Laks

Szymon Laks © Archiv André Laks


How many music lovers, even seasoned ones, have heard of Szymon Laks? Let alone of his music? Fate has been unkind to the Polish-French composer. Laks survived the hell of Auschwitz thanks to music: after he was taken captive, he was appointed conductor of the concentration camp’s orchestra.

Laks book

Laks wrote a book about his time in the camp, after which he became known as the ‘kapellmeister of Auschwitz’. Extremely painful. Like his son André stated: it may be true his father survived the war thanks to music, it should never be forgotten he mainly lived for music as well.

Laks Klüger

Ruth Klüger © Kerrin Piche Serna, University Communications

Ruth Klüger, a famous author, Germanist and Holocaust survivor wrote about Auschwitz in her book ‘Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered’ : “The name itself has an aura, albeit a negative one, that came with the patina of time, and people who want to say something important about me announce that I have been in Auschwitz. But whatever you may think, I do not hail from Auschwitz, I come from Vienna.”

Laks Polska Orkiestra Radiowa

© Polska Orkiestra Radiowa

Szymon Laks did not hail from Auschwitz, he was born in 1901 in Warsaw. He left for Paris in 1926 to finish his musical studies there. He studied with Pierre Vidal and Henri Rabaud and soon became part of the “Paris School.” A group consisting mainly of young, Eastern European composers like Bohuslav Martinů and Marcel Mihalovici,  with composers like Honegger, Milhaud and Poulenc as central figures.

This French school with its formal structures and neoclassical lines was a great influence on Laks, especially in his earlier works, but his oeuvre was also strongly rooted in the Polish tradition. Polish music, both classical and folk music was his biggest inspiration.

Laks deportatie


In May 1941 Laks was arrested and interned in the French camp Pithiviers as a foreign Jew. On July 16th 1942 he was deported from there to Auschwitz. In 1944 he was transferred to Dachau. After his liberation he returned to Paris.

Laks document

Before the war Laks worked in cinemas as an accompanist of silent films, and also played the violin in cafés. After the war all he composed, with a few exceptions, was film music.  In 1962 he started to compose again, but this period did not last very long.

Laks with son

Szymon Laks with his son André © Archiv André Laks


In 1967 Laks stopped composing altogether. The Six-Day War played a role in that decision, as well as the huge antisemitic wave that followed it in Poland. He told his son that he felt composing music was no longer of any use at all. The events in the Middle-East and the antisemitic excesses in Poland meant to Laks that the existence of the Jewish people was under threat once again.

The exodus of the remaining Polish Jews in  1968 did not only embitter him, but also worsened his attacks of depression which had plagued him for a long time.

Szymon Laks was an assimilated Jew who always felt more Polish than Jewish. For this reason his pre-war works were not influenced by Jewish traditions, something which changed shortly after the war.  In 1947 Laks composed his song cycle ‘Huit chants populaires juifs’ followed soon afterwards by stage music for ‘Dem sjmiets techter’ by Peretz Hirschbein.




The Canadian ARC Ensemble has been working on a series “Music in Exile”  for several years now. After the first two volumes with music by Paul Ben-Haim and Jerzy Fitelberg (the latter was nominated for a Grammy) they have now dedicated volume three to the music of Szymon Laks.

This CD is worth buying for the Fourth String Quartet from 1962 alone. This rhythmical work shows strong jazz influences in a classicist form. Diverse styles are affectionately combined without actually merging. Almost like passersby in a park,  greeting each other warmly, exchanging a few words, and then continuing their way. Fascinating.

How different from his “Polish” Third String Quartet from 1945 which the Canadian Ensemble recorded in the version for Piano Quintet from 1967! The Quintet has a less serious tone, parts of it are nothing more than pure entertainment. Polish folk melodies are combined with dancing passages, with every now and then time standing still, allowing you to wipe away a tear.

‘Passacaille’ from 1945 is in fact a vocalise, originally composed for voice (or cello) accompanied by piano. Here the piece is performed by a clarinet, a choice I am not entirely happy with because a clarinet simply sounds less warm than a human voice.  Simon Wynberg, the artistic director of the ARC Ensemble, sees the work as Laks’s reaction on his concentration camp experiences, expressing them in his music. Can this be true? I would like to believe it.

Passacaille, in the version for cello and piano:

Almost all pieces get their CD premiere here, but other factors make this CD a real must have as well. The quality of this long neglected music is high, of course, as are the excellent performances by the musicians. Consider buying this CD as a late reparation to the composer, who was definitely more than “kapellmeister of Auschwitz.”

ARC Ensemble records works by Laks:


Laks Pameijer

In case you want to hear more by Szymon Laks: several years ago the Leo Smit Ensemble recorded a CD with works by Laks (Future Classics 111), which includes the “Huit chants populaires juifs.” The Passacaille is included as well, in the version for flute and piano, masterly performed by Eleonore Pamijer and Marcel Worms.





Laks Szymanowski

Much recommended as well is the recent recording by the Polish Szymanowski Quartet (Avi 8553158). In addition to the Third String Quartet on Polish themes by Laks from 1945 it includes the String Quartet by Ravel and the Nocturne & Tarantella op. 28 from 1915 by Karol Szymanowski. It is fascinating to compare their performance of the “Polish Quartet” with the adaptation for Piano Quintet by the ARC Ensemble.


A few years ago Apple Republic Films started a series of documentaries on Polish-Jewish composers: the Masters Revival Series. In 2012 they made a film on Szymon Laks in collaboration with the composer’s son:

English Translation Remko Jas

Dutch original:  SZYMON LAKS. Muziek uit een andere wereld


Entartete Musik, Teresienstadt and Channel Classics

Voice in the Wilderness: music as salvation