May 7, 2020
Violins of Hope
Niv Ashkenazi, violin. Matthew Graybill, piano.
Sharon Farber, piano. Tony Campisi, narrator.
Albany Records TROY 1810
Total Time: 58:37
In the midst of a pandemic, an album with the title Violins of Hope is certainly a welcome experience. This beautiful collection of 10 varied works for solo violin is a picture of musical approaches across the 20th Century gathered around the very instrument that is used to perform them. Soloist Niv Ashkenazi perform here on a restored violin that comes from the Violins of Hope project. The collection of instruments are restored violins that were owned by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. These are then loaned out for use to give these instruments a voice that cannot be silenced by the horrors of this moment in history. Ashkenazi’s connection to the project has allowed him to have one of these instruments on a more long-term loan which has allowed him to capture a sense of the instrument’s unique voice and qualities. His choice of bow is also worth noting as it comes from the same workshop of Ammon and Avshalom Weinstein and was constructed by Daniel Schmidt at the Israeli luthier’s business in the 1990s.
The music for this release encapsulates works written during the lifetime of this particular instrument which is believed to have been constructed in Eastern Europe, or Germany, between 1900-29. The repertoire is carefully chosen to explore the richness of this particular instrument featuring some familiar works, but some wonderful discoveries as well.
Robert Dauber’s Serenade (1942) is a wonderful opener for the album that demonstrates Ashkenazi’s impeccable range of interpretation and tone. There are some simply stunning moments in the upper register of the instrument coupled with a moving, engaging performance. In fact, as the album continues, there is a real emotional core that Ashkenazi finds for these pieces. There is that somber quality which is explored in “Nigun” from Bloch’s Baal Shem suite (1923) followed by a beautiful performance of John William’s theme from Schindler’s List (1993). Julius Chajes’ melancholy The Chassid (1939) is an interesting work as well exploring Jewish musical gestures. Some other brief excerpts here include the delightful “Dance of the Rebbitzen” from George Perlman’s Suite hebraique (1929), Paul Ben-Haim’s beautiful “Berceuse sfaradite”, and a “Kaddish” from Ravel’s Deux melodies hebraiques (1914, arranged by Lucien Garban in 1924). Each of these explores Jewish melodic ideas within their unique modernist/impressionist styles. Sharon Farber’s Bestimming: Triumph (2014, arr. 2019) is taken from her cello concerto. It is a truly moving work that utilizes a narrated text about a Holocaust survivor who managed to save more than 150 children as part of the Dutch Resistance. It is a powerful work with a grand, triumphant conclusion.
Two multi-movement works are provided as a mid-point and conclusion to the album. First is Szymon Laks’ Troi pieces de concert (1935) includes a modernist set of variations, a romance, and virtuosic moto perpetual motion finale. Laks managed to survive Auschwitz though much of his earlier work was destroyed or lost. This particular work existed only in a cello version but was reconstructed for violin in 2010. Finally, the album concludes with Ben-Haim’s Three Songs Without Words (1945). Here is a bit of a nutshell summary of the exploration of most of these composers in period modernism and somewhat expanded harmony and open intervals that grace music from this period.
The notes accompanying this album help navigate these unfamiliar works well. But it is the playing itself which will invite further listening. This is a very well-chosen program of accessible (mostly) early 20th Century music that is filled with references to Hebraic melodies, but also plumbs the depths of the soul as one reflects upon the century. Ashkenazi’s performances invite the listener into these works and captures the lyrical beauty of these pieces. He allows the instrument to sing with moments that can sense the deep sadness and those which lift the spirits and move from melancholy to hope and triumph. The program itself helps the listener move through these emotions as well as we can both enjoy what each piece has done, followed often by a more reflective musical work that offers us to consider what was lost. He is served very well by his accompanist Matthew Graybil who provides excellent support to these interpretations. Albany’s sound, captured in the wonderful Great Hall at California State University, Northridge, also is an asset with excellent sound imaging.
Violins of Hope is an important release for those exploring both the repertoire explored here as well as being introduced to a great, thoughtful performer with an instrument that will not be silenced. Highly recommended!