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ARC Ensemble: Chamber Works of Alberto Hemsi – Music in Exile Premiere Recordings

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Alberto Hemsi
Alberto Hemsi, Milan, 1918 © Institute européen des musiques juives, Paris

It seems as if every time we discover a composer whose music we would have known nothing – or very little – about, it is invariably Toronto’s ARC Ensemble and [principally] its Artistic Director, Simon Wynberg who are behind our fascinating discovery. In this case it is the Chamber Works by Alberto Hemsi, Mr Wynberg and the ARC Ensemble are unveiling here, as part of the series Music In Exile.

Mr Hemsi is one of the Sephardim diaspora whose ancestors were driven out of Castille by the Spanish Catholics in the 15th century bringing with them their Ladino language, a Castilian dialect. As the diaspora settled all Turkey, and the areas between The Middle East and North Africa the dialect was enriched with influences of the cultures with which the Sephardim collided.

ARC Ensemble: Chamber Works by Alberto Hemsi
ARC Ensemble: Chamber Works by Alberto Hemsi

The language of Ladino Poets developed an imagery all of their own; as did musicians such as Mr Hemsi, whose music shown influences of melodies and harmonies that propelled Greek music and dance, as well as the gentle undulant rhythms of the desert cultures of Middle East, and the ululations of North African and Turkish  music.

This is eminently clear right out of the gate in these magnificent premier releases performed by the ARC Ensemble, as the playfulness and sombre colours of Mr Hemsi’s Danze nuziali greche, Op. 37 collide with the joyful balletic leaps, the “yoddling” arpeggios and warm, liquid glissandos of Klezmer played by the ARC Ensemble. [It bears mention like all the works on this record the Danze… is exquisitely and elaborately orchestrated by Mr Hemsi.]

Members of Toronto’s celebrated ARC Ensemble. Photograph courtesy of the artists.

There are three movements – each celebrating a personage from Greek marriage party. Piano and cello, meanwhile engage in the nuptial dance in all its [at times frenzied] glory. We are struck at once by the dazzling array of Mr Hemsi’s gestures and techniques that will no doubt await the wider recognition that is surely their due. It bears mention that the members of the ARC recreate a vivid picture of this kaleidoscopic series.

What is quite striking about this music by Mr Hemsi is that we become aware, as the recording progresses, is that “soul” is probably the most abiding quality of the music. Through the graceful progress of Tre arie antiche [dalle ‘Coplas Sefardies’] Op. 30 it does strike one that the composer employs Turkish and Arabic folk music and the stealthy introduction to the III Movement brings the Coplas Sefardies to a miraculous and mystical climax.

Mr Hemsi’s Pilpúl Sonata Op. 27 brings violin and piano together. The I Movement is elaborate and the instruments access the fitful beauty of this boldly experimental work with great eloquence. More exquisite “fleshing out” takes place in the subsequent movements to provide an eerily brilliant reflection into the soul of the composer.

The Quintet, Op. 28 is – like the opening piece – a BIG feature of the recording. Using the dark edges of the viola’s sound palette which Mr Hemsi works cleverly into the music, we suddenly feel as if we are drawn into a tone-painting that is almost covertly theatrical. This work – together with the dramatic Méditation, Op. 16is one of the most redolent of Mr Hemsi’s mélange of folk music than anything else on the recording, which like all of the other recordings in the Music in Exile series is one to die for.

Deo gratis

Tracks – 1: Danze nuziali greche, Op. 37 bis [1956] – [Danses nuptiales grecques] for cello and piano after an original work for solo piano Op. 37 [c.1953] – I In onore della ‘patherà’ [suocera] [In Honour of the Mother-in-Law] Lento ad libitum – moderato – tempo I – Più animato, II – In onore della ‘nymphi’ [sposa] [In Honour of the Bride] Andantino grazioso – Poco animato – Tempo I – Poco animato, III Onore del ‘cumbaro’ [compare] [In Honour of the Godfather] Allegretto con spirito; 2: Tre arie antiche [dalle ‘Coplas Sefardies’] Op. 30 [1945]* [Three Ancient Airs, from Coplas Sefardies] for String Quartet À Mme Ethel & Frank Cohen I – Ballata. Grave e sonoro – Allegretto – Grave e sonoro – Allegretto; II Canzone. Calmo e nostagico – Tempo I, Rondo Allegro – Allegretto – Poco più mosso – Tempo I – Poco piu mosso – Poco più mosso – Poco più mosso – Meno mosso – Tempo I – Poco più mosso – Lento e mesto; 3: Pilpúl Sonata Op. 27 [1942]† for violin and piano I Allegretto comodo – Poco meno – Tempo I – Poco meno Con molta grazia – Meno – Meno – Meno mosso, scherzando – Andantino poco  mosso – Tempo I – Meno – Tempo I – Con molta grazia – Poco più mosso – Poco più mosso – Lento – Allegro, II – Larghetto meditativo, III – Allegretto rapsodico; 4: Quintet. Op. 28 [c. 1943]* in G major for Viola and String Quartet À Ödön Partos I – Concertino Allegretto con brio – poco meno – Tempo I, II – Burlesca Allegretto spirituoso – [Fine] – Poco più mosso – Meno mosso – Tempo I – Da capo tutto al Fine, III Berceuse. [♪ = 104 – 108] – Poco animato – Tempo I, IV – Rondo [♩ = 132 – 138] – Poco più animato; 5: Méditation, Op. 16 [before 1931] [dans le style armenien] for Cello and Piano – Per Edgardo Maria Brunetti – Grave, ad libitum – Tempo I – Andante – Poco più animato – Meno mosso – Poco più animato – Lento

Musicians – The ARC EnsembleErika Raum: violin; Marie Bedard: violin; Emily Kruspe: violin; Steven Dann: viola*; Julien Altmann: viola; Tom Wiebe: cello; Kevin Ahfat: piano

Released – 2022
Label – Chandos [CHAN 20243]
Runtime – 1:03:46

Based in Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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