The Musical Adventures of Two Israeli String Players

New discs by Israeli violinist Itamar Zorman and violist Guy Ben-Ziony overflow with originality and artistic integrity.

A few days apart, and entirely by chance, two discs by two Israeli string players ended up in my possession. Both are members of the Israeli Chamber Project and each has recorded an album that presents the soloist’s credo. Both discs – each in its own way – overflow with originality and artistic integrity, along with lovely playing. Each of them it its own way offers profound enjoyment, on several levels.

First came “Portrait” by violinist Itamar Zorman, with pianist Kwan Yi. Zorman has accumulated an impressive list of credits in recent years, including the Tchaikovsky competition in 2011, followed by the prestigious Avery Fisher grant, and a respectable list of stipends and prizes. Kwan Yi is a Korean pianist who lives, performs and teaches in the United States; he is a graduate of Juilliard and other prestigious schools, and has also accumulated stipends and prizes.

The two chose to record a disc in the format of a recital, which ends in a safe haven: a Brahms sonata. On the way there is a series of interesting and lovely works that are not often performed and recorded.

First, variations by Olivier Messiaen, an innovative 20th-century composer. This is an early work, almost without any clearly modern characteristics. It is followed by a pleasant rondo by Schubert, followed by a surprise.

Zorman and his colleagues in the Israeli Chamber Project have already surprised us with a work by Ernest Chausson (1855-1899). That was at the final concert of the past season, when they played the Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet with an emotional intensity that revealed entirely unfamiliar strengths in the work. Also on the disc is Poeme, Op. 25, originally for violin and orchestra, and here arranged by Chausson himself for violin and piano. This interpretation distilled a sequential musical line from the work, and emotional passion that I wasn’t aware it possessed.

The ability to distill emotional passion and power is prominent in Zorman’s playing. The sound he produces from the violin is not exactly to my taste – he chooses a warm sound, with quite a lot of vibrato that externalizes the emotional expression. I prefer a cleaner and more restrained sound. But the questions of style are pushed aside to some extent when at an unexplained moment a small miracle takes place: In his hands the violin becomes a focused, intense beam of emotion, and I am trapped inside it.

On this disc such a miracle takes place in every work. Even in the most complex and intellectual, the Sonata for Solo Violin by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). This is a work in five movements, with sharp changes of atmosphere between movements – a compact architecture and emotional restraint, almost dryness. In Zorman’s hands the sonata sings. I’m not sure that it’s enough to convince me to join the Hindemith fan club, but it’s certainly enough to produce applause for a musician who decided not to produce a collection of hits, but rather an original recital with a personal artistic statement, which is based on excellent playing.

The last work, Brahms’ Third Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 108, is a more familiar work, amazingly beautiful, but also long and demanding. There is a good balance here between the structure and the emotional power and a nice dialogue between the instruments. Kwan Yi’s piano has a full, warm and reverberating sound, too dense for my taste, but it blends in well with Zorman’s intense playing.

Guy Ben-Ziony.

Fantasia for Viola

The round of applause continues for the second disc, “Monodialogue,” which consists exclusively of works for the solo viola, played by Guy Ben-Ziony. Ben-Ziony studied the violin in his childhood; he soon switched to the viola, and after one meeting with the violist Tabea Zimmermann, which greatly impressed him, he went to Frankfurt to study with her. He now lives and works mainly in Germany, and is active in many ensembles, projects and performances as a soloist and a chamber player.

There is an associative connection between the two discs, although they cause entire different musical experiences. Even more than Zorman’s “Portrait,” “Monodialogue” is a personal and unique musical adventure: a series of compositions which together become an overall musical experience. It should be heard in full and in sequence.

The name of the album comes from the last work, “Monodialogue” for solo viola by Menachem Wiesenberg. Ben-Ziony notes in remarks on the disc that this is the key work on the album. “This is a masterpiece, and a treasure in the viola repertoire,” he writes. It was originally composed for Tabea Zimmermann and includes an internal conversation of contrasting and conflicted voices. Ben-Ziony was looking for works that include a similar internal discourse and also chose to bring together works that present a contrast in style and atmosphere. He has created a journey of skipping among periods and styles.

The disc opens with a Fantasia by Telemann (1681-1767), no. 10 of the 12 beautiful fantasies he composed for solo violin. Here it has been converted to a scale suitable for the viola. Paul Hindemith is represented by Ben-Ziony too. He skips from Baroque to his Sonata for Viola, Op. 25, no. 1. This is a work that combines 20th-century language with multivocal forms and echoes of the Baroque period. The composer was very well aware of the possibilities of the viola: He himself was a violist and most of his livelihood came from playing in string quartets.

After Hindemith, there is another Telemann Fantasia, followed by the Elegy for Solo Viola or Violin by Stravinsky, a short work written in 1944, which belongs to the composer’s neoclassical period: It combines 20th-century language with foundations and structures originating in earlier periods. Once again, an internal discourse of contrasts.

A last jump to Baroque with Fantasia no. 9 of Telemann’s 12 famous compositions for the solo violin. As mentioned, here three of them have been adapted, in terms of pitch and scale, for the viola.

The last visit is to the composition that gave the disc its name. “Monodialogue” really is an original, beautiful and interesting work; it maneuvers among various tones of the viola, from the assertive and dramatic to the delicate and soft, changes moods and ends, surprisingly, with the viola playing a lyrical passage and the soloist singing along with it.

The disc was recorded in a church in Leipzig with amazing acoustics, and the quality of the recording is wonderful: an intimate tone that is full of presence. One can discern the lovely nuances and the elegant sound, connect to the musical flow and enjoy a disc that deviates from the routine and becomes a unique event.

Itamar Zorman - “Portrait,” with pianist Kwan Yi, works by Messiaen, Schubert, Chausson, Hindemith, Brahms. Published by Hanssler’s Gunther Edition; Profil and Kronberg Academy.Guy Ben-Ziony - “Monodialogue,” works for viola by Telemann, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Wiesenberg. Published by Genuin.