CLASSICAL MUSIC / Raw sincerity of forbidden fruit

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The Independent Culture
EARLY LAST year Decca launched a CD series of music banned by the Third Reich and got itself into deep water with a project far more sensitive than its executives had bargained for. I remember the launch party (well, it was meant to be a party) in Berlin and the hostility of the German critics who either stood up and attacked the whole thing as a politically motivated opening of old wounds or condemned Decca's naivety in resurrecting the Nazi term Entartete Musik - Degenerate Music - as the series title. They had a point.

But the series itself has unearthed some interesting work from a lost generation of mostly Jewish composers; and it must have given the Germans something to think about because the main theme of this year's Schleswig-Holstein Festival is Israel and the forbidden music of the Third Reich. Almost certainly, it's the biggest platform for the subject there has ever been in Germany: Schleswig- Holstein is an enormous undertaking with a budget of pounds 8m and a total of 140 concerts spread across the flatlands north of Hamburg. Taking note of Decca's blunder, there is no mention of the word Entartete. At Schleswig-Holstein they say Verbannte, and it's enough.

So far as the programmes are concerned, most of the Verbannte art is fairly mainstream - Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, Mendelssohn - but given an emotional edge in that the festival has made a point of inviting Israeli orchestras and other Jewish artists to present it. And so it was that the Israel Symphony Orchestra launched the theme last weekend, with a performance in Kiel of Weill's Seven Deadly Sins rather reticently introduced by the new President of the Bundesrepublik, Roman Herzog. It was a curious occasion, featuring Brigitte Fassbaender (not, so far as I was aware, Jewish) as the soloist. Brilliant of tone and with a fiercely clear attack, Fassbaeder's singing would have been admirable in almost any context but this piece, which demands a steamier cabaret style than she was prepared to give it. And the failure of idiom extended, I'm afraid, to the orchestra, proving that Jewishness alone is not an open sesame to Weill. The Mendelssohn 5th Symphony that followed wasn't overburdened with a sense of idiom either. Or energy.

But the ISO is politically, if not yet musically, an interesting phenomenon - recently established by composer-conductor Noam Sheriff in an industrial town near Tel Aviv as an attempt to sort out the mess that Israeli music-making appears to be in. A mess that affects creative as well as interpretative musicianship and was all too obvious in this festival.

The basic problem is that there is no indigenous musical ecology, as yet, in Israel. Native musicianship has reached a third generation, but in impossible circumstances. Like any young plant, it needed gentle nurturing. Instead it has been overwhelmed by random and conflicting intakes of Oriental, central European and American culture; and at the same time, it has been required to graft its new ideas on to an

ancient language - Hebrew - artificially revived. The final straw has been a vast intake of Russians who now dominate the Israeli orchestras (Sheriff has determinedly limited his ISO to 50 per cent) and, whatever their individual virtues, shatter the efforts of past years to develop an integrity of sound.

In short, the country needs more time; and unsurprisingly, the work of its composers is still tentative. At least, that was the conclusion I drew from hearing the ISO play scores like Odon Partos's Yizkor for viola and orchestra (an old piece) and Ben- Zion Orgad's A Vigil in Jerusalem (a comparatively new one). Both were thin, derivative, uncertain pieces in the Lament tradition that persists in Israeli music: colourfully emotional but with no real intensity.

I didn't hear much more in the world premiere of Noam Sheriff's Piano Concerto, which the ISO played in Itzehoe on Tuesday. A fragmented piece of lightweight neo-classicism (largely neo-Scarlatti), it had the unfocused feel of a housewife in a supermarket loading tins into her basket with no idea of how to cook the contents into a coherent meal. The missing ingredient that might have made it work was irony.

But then, I'm bound to add that unironic, raw sincerity is the most engaging quality of new Israeli art - and, given just a little cultivation, its likely hope for the future. I was particularly touched by the soloist in Sheriff's concerto, a pianist called Ludmila Berman, who played as though this modest music was the Great Experience of her life. I hope she finds still greater ones to come.

Back in London, there was more Jewish (though not Israeli) music in Thursday's Prom when the BBC Philharmonic under Yan-Pascal Tortelier and the cellist Ralph Kirshbaum played Bloch's Schelomo: a dark and Hebraic lament, but with a strength of definition that takes it beyond the territory of passingly attractive oriental colour. Schelomo is a score that knows where it's going: into a pit of despair that, with a fine performance such as this, can be profoundly moving.

Continuing the week's Semitic theme at arm's length, the Philharmonia Orchestra signed off this year's City of London Festival with a devastating performance of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast in St Paul's Cathedral on Wednesday. The impact was unexpected, coming as it did after a grim account of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto which the soloist, Luigi Alberto Bianchi, attempted to conduct as well as play. The best thing I can say for Mr Bianchi is that, thanks to Christopher Wren, most of his efforts were neither visible nor audible. But Belshazzar had a real conductor, Mark Elder, whose frenzied speeds were exactly what Walton used to warn against and yet, with a capable choir (the London Symphony Chorus) and orchestra, amazingly exciting. They hammered some shape into a score that shoots from the hip in all directions. And they gave a fiercer than usual complexion to the praising of the heathen gods where, after a portentous preface, the music settles into all-too-English ceremonial: the sort of thing Walton did very well but shouldn't have here. In Elder's hands it grew to Verdian stature; and I can't think of

a higher commendation.

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