ARC Ensemble: Chamber works by Alberto Hemsi

ARC Ensemble are the Artists of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. They are superb players but they’re also important because of the work they do. For example, their new recording Chamber Works by Alberto Hemsi, that was just released this past October 14, is the first commercial release devoted to the composer’s unique and extraordinary works, as part of their “Music in Exile” series from Chandos Records.

When we listen to chamber music we’re often hearing classics from long ago, not newly discovered music from the past.

Here’s the description from the ARC Ensemble’s press release accompanying this their latest.
“It is ironic that composer Alberto Hemsi, who spent much of his life rescuing music that faced extinction, should have his own brilliantly original works threatened with a similar fate. As part of its mission to research and recover 20th century music suppressed or marginalized by repressive regimes, war, and exile, Canada’s acclaimed ARC Ensemble focuses its sixth Chandos recording on this overlooked and prodigious talent.”

You may wonder about Alberto Hemsi and what his music sounds like. Alberto Hemsi, composer and ethnomusicologist, was born in 1898 in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire and now Turkey. He died in 1975 in Paris.

He’s best known for his work capturing traditional Sephardic melodies in arrangements such as his Coplas Sephardies, songs that include piano arrangements. Here’s an example of one of them.

The notes to the CD compare them
“to the path that Béla Bartók followed in reviving Hungarian folk music, Hemsi attempted to “recreate with them the traditional spirit of the people in the manner I thought was most favorable and appropriate to the song’s mood.” He saw this as “rescuing work in a triple process: reproduction, reconstruction, and recreation.”

But that’s the Hemsi who is known. ARC Ensemble are also probing scores that haven’t been heard before.

Hemsi is an original, “very different from what anyone else was doing at the time,” says Simon Wynberg, Artistic Director of the ARC Ensemble. “Hemsi worked outside the European mainstream, using fairly simple Sephardic melodies as the building blocks for extended and sometimes quite complex concert works.”

I’m trying to find a proper analogy to what I hear on the CD, but it’s truly unique. Because Hemsi represents a sort of creative cul de sac, being mostly unknown and unheard, he was able to boldly make his own original voice. There’s no pressure from the conservatory powers to conform to movements or styles. Instead he’s happily capturing something of his ethnicity but mixed into a modern texture free of the need to be atonal or dissonant.

The recording features four multi-movement works, plus a single movement work. Here are the tracks:
1-3: Danze nuziali greche Op 37 (1956) for cello and piano
4-6: Tre arie antiche (dalle “Collas Sefardies”) Op 30 (c. 1945) for string quartet
7-9: Pilpúl Sonata Op27 (1942) for Violin and piano
10-13: Quintet Op 28 (c.1943)
14: Meditation, Op 16 (before 1931)

The Danze nuziali greche (Greek nuptial dances) don’t sound Greek to me, but rather more in keeping with Hemsi’s Jewish roots, as you can hear in this example (but what do I know).

The cello is melodic, the piano sometimes wonderfully percussive, rhythmic, yet simple and direct. Throughout this album I’m amazed at how much drama Hemsi gets out of two instruments, particularly in the mature works, simply by repeating patterns and phrases. You’ll notice that the track sequence begins with the latest works, delving further into Hemsi’s past with each track.

The Tre arie antiche are melodies from the Collas Sefardies arranged for string quartet, brilliant use of the instruments in ways to illuminate tunes without getting bogged down in games of virtuosity for its own sake. The melodies get handed around the ensemble yet they’re always transparent. I’m struck by how Hemsi’s music at its most elaborate still seems closer to something popular like Gershwin or even folk music rather than anything from a conservatory artist.

The Pilpúl Sonata for violin reminded me at times of Stravinsky’s ragtime or Ravel’s jazz, or perhaps a bit like Debussy. The piano is elegant and clean, moody yet seeming to come from a different place in Europe, as though we found a new late violin sonata from Debussy or Ravel. But wait, in the music he’s showing us that he was actually Jewish. There are repeated phrases that sound like prayers.

The quintet (for a string quartet with an additional viola) is perhaps the least Jewish sounding of the works, featuring a more typically modernist texture of the mid-century, while still being completely tonal and melodic. Its ambiguities are not troubling but merely procedural games, going in circles like a child playing with a pet or a toy. While this four-movement work comes almost as the climax of the album it needs to be said that this is Hemsi’s earlier voice. As he gets older (at least in the earlier tracks I heard on the CD) he seems reconciled to his ethnicity and increasingly welcomes and even foregrounds that in his work. I can’t help wondering what kind of dialogues (whether internal or with colleagues) underlie his choices and creative pathways.

The Meditation “in Armenian style” is a lovely work. Cellist Tom Wiebe doesn’t overdo the schmaltz, his understated playing offering a superb calling card for the composer both in this (his earliest example on the recording) as well as the late Danze nuziali greche.

The ARC Ensemble album features violinists Marie Bérard, Erika Raum, and Emily Kruspe (Pilpul Sonata), violists Steven Dann and Julien Altmann, cellist Tom Wiebe, and pianist Kevin Ahfat.

The ARC Ensemble will be performing in Toronto November 13th playing music of Robert Müller-Hartmann. Further information

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1 Response to ARC Ensemble: Chamber works by Alberto Hemsi

  1. Pingback: ARC Ensemble plays The Music of Robert Müller-Hartmann | barczablog

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