Classical Music

“Chamber Works by Alberto Hemsi”

The disc is part of the group’s mission to research and recover 20th century music that was suppressed, or marginalized by repressive regimes, war and exile


The ARC Ensemble recently released their sixth Chandos recording, which is the latest in their acclaimed “Music in Exile” series.

This album focuses on composer and ethnomusicologist, Alberto Hemsi, who was born in 1898 in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire and now Turkey.

If listeners know of Hemsi, it is for his Coplas Sephardies, vocal arrangements with piano accompaniments based on traditional Sephardic melodies collected across the Mediterranean and Middle East.

While these vocal works have been performed and recorded, Hemsi’s instrumental music has been generally ignored. These scores have been available since 2004 when Hemsi’s widow left the composer’s archive to the Institut Européen de Musique Juives in Paris.

The ARC Ensemble’s recent recording is the first to be dedicated to these five works: Danses Nuptiales Grecques for cello and piano, Op. 37, the Tre Arie Antiche (dalle Coplas Sefardies) for String Quartet, Op. 30, The Pilpúl Sonata for Violin and Piano,Op. 27, Quintet for Viola and String Quartet, Op. 28, and Méditation for Cello and Piano, Op. 16. 

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.

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


About Alberto Hemsi

“Wars, political unrest, and anti-Semitism forced Hemsi to flee from areas that had once provided sanctuary for Jews,” writes the ARC Ensemble.The Société Musicale Israélite in Smyrna, supported him with a scholarship to study at Milan’s Verdi Conservatory, whose alumni include Puccini, and more recently, Gian Carlo Menotti and Ricardo Muti. Hemsi’s huge natural gifts, were expanded and developed here, but any chance of a piano career ended when he was drafted into the Italian army and wounded in the final months of WWI. He returned to Smyrna after completing his studies, but left for Rhodes in the aftermath of the Greco-Turkish War, and the massive fire of 1922 that destroyed much of the city.

“In 1928, he was appointed musical director of the Middle-East’s largest synagogue, the Eliahou Hanabi Temple in Alexandria, where he remained for the nearly thirty years. With Israel’s invasion of Sinai, and the Suez Crisis, the Hemsi family was among the 25,000 Jews who fled Egypt in 1957. He spent his remaining years in Paris, where he continued to teach, study and to supervise the music of two synagogues. He died of lung cancer in 1975. 

“Hemsi was certainly fortunate to abandon both Smyrna and Rhodes, almost all of whose Jewish residents were killed in Auschwitz after Nazi forces took over the island. “Living through the war in Egypt, though undeniably stressful, was not remotely comparable to the experience of European Jews,” says Wynberg. Yet, while the frequently displaced composer may have been able to survive and even thrive, despite having to rebuild his career, his strikingly original music has remained in exile, unheard for the last 60 plus years.”

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