“Jewish people and Germans will always be connected to each other.” These words of powerful understatement from the Israeli Ambassador to Germany prefaced the first edition of the New Life Festival, dedicated to Jewish musicians who fled from or suffered under the National Socialist regime during the Second World War. Many, such as Kurt Weill or György Ligeti, are already rightfully celebrated for their contribution to 20th-century musical culture. Others are less well known.

Gila Goldstein © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Gila Goldstein
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

At the centre of the New Life Festival was the music of Paul Ben-Haim, born in Germany in 1897, and who became an early Jewish settler in what was then Palestine in 1933. Ben-Haim is celebrated for his efforts to create an Israeli musical style, but is rarely heard in European concert halls today. On the opening day of the concert, soprano Mimi Sheffer, also the festival’s director, presented a newly discovered orchestral version of Pan for soprano and orchestra that has hitherto only been performed in its piano reduction.

Written in Germany in 1931, when the composer was still known by his birth name Paul Frankenburger, this symphonic poem sets a text by Heinrich Lautensack (who was associated with Frank Wedekind, the father of literary expressionism), that connects nature with dreaming as well as the Greek god Pan. Ben-Haim’s score is evocative, an ecstatic concoction of shimmering harmonies and mysterious melodies that conjure up the magic of nature.

Pan is an interesting work, with a sensuality reminiscent of Szymanowski and Scriabin, and the orientalist use of mandolins showing the composer’s burgeoning interest in the East. However, it deserved a more confident performance than that given by the Berliner Symphoniker under their chief conductor Lior Shambadal. Mimi Sheffer is obviously dedicated to Paul Ben-Haim’s music and was powerful in her upper register, but struggled in a difficult acoustic.

Composed 18 years later, the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is one of Ben-Haim’s first pieces after the creation of Israel. Here, traces of the heightened harmonic language of Pan remain, but rub up against jaunty motivic writing and hints of nostalgic romanticism.  Soloist Gila Goldstein was the standout performer in a night of wavering musical standards, providing a much-needed injection of energy and clarity, and giving a good case for an eccentric piece with a rather “pick ‘n’ mix” attitude to modernism.

In addition to three orchestral songs by Kurt Weill and Ernst Toch’s “fairytale for orchestra” based on Peter Pan, the programme was completed by Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Lustspiel Overture. Composed in 1894/95, this is an early piece that in all likelihood was never performed, with a late romantic idiom that shares a musical genealogy with the works of his near-contemporary Mahler – who was a supporter of the younger Zemlinsky’s music, and was briefly a rival for the heart of the precocious Alma Schindler.

With robust melodies, lush orchestration and feverish climaxes, the work is beguiling, and one cannot but give in to its moments of gorgeous beauty. Here, the Berliner Symphoniker gave the impassioned and engaged performance that was lacking in the rest of the concert, and gave a persuasive argument for the value of this hidden gem.