Niv Ashkenazi’s Lyrical Debut Album Celebrates Obscure Composers Imperiled or Murdered During the Holocaust
On a musical level alone, Niv Ashkenazi’s debut album Violins of Hope with pianist Matthew Graybil – streaming at Spotify – is a work of extraordinary beauty that reflects the vast scope of Jewish music throughout history. The backstory is even more inspiring. On one hand, this is a collection of both virtually unknown and relatively obscure repertoire by Jewish composers who were either driven from their homes or murdered during the Holocaust, along with a couple of famous pieces from the classical and film music canons.
Ashkenazi’s axe is one of dozens of violins played by Jews during the Holocaust, rescued by Israeli luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein and detailed in James A. Grymes’ book, which shares its title with this album. This particular European model, crafted sometime between 1900 and 1929, has a remarkably warm tone and a Star of David inlay in mother of pearl on the body. It may have been played in the death camps, or one of the ghettos: no one knows for sure. The purpose of the project, and this album, is to return both the music and these instruments to their rightful place in our culture.
Robert Dauber’s Serenade, a song without words, is the cellist-composer’s only surviving work. Graybil’s lightly acerbic staccato and Ashkenazi’s aching lyricism echo both Schubert and Rachmaninoff. Dauber – son of jazz violinist Dolf Dauber – wrote it while imprisoned at Terezin. He died in captivity at Dachau in 1945.
Ernest Bloch’s 1923 Nigun features Ashkenazi soaring, spiraling and trilling against a drone over Graybil’s alternately hypnotic and rippling chromatics, a theme and variations on a gorgeous, dramatic medieval cantorial melody. John Williams well-known, klezmer-inspired Theme from Schindler’s List gets apt contrast between Graybil’s austere piano and Ashkenazi’s wounded, almost imploring intensity.
Julius Chajes’ 1939 piece The Chassid slowly rises to a triumphant strut in the Middle Easter-tinged freygish mode, the composer obviously inspired by the short time he spent in exile in the Holy Land before settling in Detroit.
Rising from hypnotic minimalism to a vigorous, neoromantic peak, contemporary composer Sharon Farber’s Bestemming: Triumph celebrates Dutch Resistance hero Curt Lowens, who saved not only scores of Jews but also a pair of downed American airmen during the war. The composer joins Graybil at the keys; Tony Campisi speaks Lowens’ own words, watching the survivors make their escape.
Szymon Laks’ resolute spirit shines through in his 1935 work Trois Pièces de Concert. The composer and Holocaust hero saved several of his fellow musicians from death at Auschwitz, survived the death camp and continued his career after he was liberated. Here the duo shift from a carefree baroque dance to unexpectedly marionettish riffage, a balmy barcarolle, and a lively conclusion which comes across as an update on Corelli.
The Ukrainian-born George Perlman taught violin in Chicago until his death at 103. His 1929 Dance of the Rebbitzen is a beautifully lilting miniature in freygish mode. As its title implies, pioneering Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim’s tenderly waltzing 1945 Berceuse Sfaradite looks back to Sephardic traditions.
The well-known classical number here is Kaddish, from Ravel’s Deux Melodies Hebraïques, in a terse, crystalline 1924 arrangement by Lucien Garban. The duo conclude the album with Ben-Haim’s Three Songs Without Words, a partita from 1952. They follow a steady upward trajectory through the brooding opening pavane, to a similarly wary Ballad and conclude with a Sephardic Melody that echoes the composer’s early immersion in European neoromanticism.