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Ari Ben-Shabetai and Israeli Piano Music Anthology


Magenta; Aquamarine; White light
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Gary Bertini
Symphonic Images from King Herod's Temple in Jerusalem
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
ELEGIE pour Anna Franck
Jerusaiem Symphony Orchestra/David Robertson
THREE ROMANCES for solo piano
Reflections; Scriabin; Toccata

Liora Ziv-Li - piano

Here is an inspirational package of music received from Israel; a rather long delayed, but no less welcome, sequel to a week spent in Ari Ben-Shabetai's company at the ISCM Festival in Luxembourg*.

Amongst the works featured there, I had been especially impressed by Ben-Shabetai's Delusions on Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus for piano & strings, and had asked to hear more of his music.

An important composer in his beleagured country, Ben-Shabetai's orchestral music has been performed and toured internationally by conductors such as Mehta and Maazel but, I fear, not in UK?.

The Sinfonia derives from Ben-Shabetai's enthusiasm for Scriabin, and explores the 'great musical-artistic potential of merging the extremes of romantic extended tonality and atonality'. The colour references helped him , but may confuse listeners because of the multiple, and often contradictory, associations he draws upon for each one. But the music is dramatic and gripping from beginning to end and well deserves the accolades quoted from USA and Germany as well as in Israel. It would go well at a Prom in London.

The MAGRèFFA was an ancient musical instrument of allegedly formidable carrying power. This piece evokes the Biblical scene with dramatic and sometimes disturbing power.

More overtly disturbing is Ben-Shabetai's meditation on Anna Franck, with a specially invented "Metalphone" to evoke the railroad tracks on which the doomed were taken to their deaths, possibly the same tracks on which the composer travelled into Germany in 1982, with images of the holocaust fresh in his mind.

Liora Ziv-Li premiered Ben-Shabetai's Three Romances at London's Wigmore Hall in 1986 and her volume (illustrated) is the first of nine CDs of music by 56 composers, recorded by nine pianists who took part in a "mammoth project" master-minded by Ben-Shabetai over eleven years gestation, completed and released in a handsome box summer 2003.

The piano (a purely European harmonic instrument) featured importantly in Palestine and Israel's concert life and teaching, reaching an apex in the 1930's when hundreds were brought into the country by German refugees who were forbidden to transfer most of their capital. In the early years, forty composers initiated a search for a new national Jewish style, and later volumes reflect the international influences of the numerous composers represented, whose lives are documented in fascinating biographical notes incorporated with each of these nine CDs, in a boxed set devoted to Isaeli piano music from the Palestine of the Yishuv under British mandate, through Israel's independence (1948) and to today.

Apart from the intrinsic quality of this unfamiliar music, it is refreshing (as a change from the flood of re-recordings of canonic masterpieces) to hear a large collection of music new to the listening ears. Often, I found myself wishing I had scores to play through the less difficult pieces at the keyboard.

The production is impressive, with copious notes, a chronological table of the music (1923-1995) and contents, composers tables and photos of all the pianists. The recording of these excellent pianists is likewise exemplary. Well worth exploring; see contact address below.

*ISCM World Music Days 2000
- - The Prague Chamber Orchestra appeared in the vast, domed central atrium of the Deutsche Bank, in the governmental and commercial Kirnberger Plateau of Luxembourg. Their concert of seven unknown works was given without a break, to the displeasure of many who understandably found it hard to maintain concentration. The most interesting, and the only one which left a really lasting impression, was by the Israeli composer Ari Ben-Shabetai . Delusions on Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus for piano (David Svec) & strings, five contrasted movements played continuously. It is an attempt to confront the desire and contemporary expectation that compositions should endeavour to make personal statements, renewed for each work, without mimicking other composers, or allowing oneself to be overwhelmed by colossi of such as Mozart and nostalgia for the music of the past. Delusions derives its materials from Mozart's Motet, mostly on a micro-motivic level. Ben-Shabetai's attraction to the three descending chromatic notes - A - G #- G, - from very beginning, which add to it so much beauty and charm, sparked his quest for unusual chromatic relationships and sends Delusions on its wild tonal/atonal escapade. Its fifth movement ends the work with a slow, distorted rendition of Ave Verum Corpus , like an unreal reflection through a crooked mirror.

Ari Ben Shabetai's new opera The Damask Drum is to be premiered at the Asian Music Festival in Israel November 2004

Enquiries to mailto:arilb@zahav.net.il


© Peter Grahame Woolf