Artistic director of the ARC Ensemble Simon Wynberg lifts the veil on works by composers suppressed by anti-Semitism and bigotry, featured in the ensemble’s past and present recordings


The ARC Ensemble

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For most of the last 20 years, the ARC Ensemble has devoted its energy and resources to the exploration of music that was sidelined by war and exile. The ensemble’s first recording, devoted to the works of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, featured his Piano Quintet op. 18, composed in the aftermath of his terrifying flight from Warsaw to the Soviet Union. The Weinberg recording was nominated for a Grammy and now has over a dozen rival recordings. Paradoxically, it was this very practice of over-duplication that had dissuaded me from re-recording the familiar; when ARC recorded the Piano Quintet, the only other version was a deleted Soviet issue featuring the Bolshoi Theatre Quartet with the composer at the piano.

The ARC Ensemble has now released ten recordings, the seven most recent (on Chandos) are part of its pioneering Music in Exile series. Almost every work in the ensemble’s discography is new to the catalogue, previously unknown to both the ensemble and its audience, and the assessment and recovery of these works has been a hugely exciting process. When, after 80 or more years, a strong but long-forgotten piece is finally brought to the stage, the thrill can be quite extraordinary, especially so when one’s colleagues around the world adopt and perform it. This happened recently when the release of works by the Kharkiv composer Dmitri Klebanov coincided with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Klebanov, an ardent nationalist, drew on several Ukrainian melodies for his Fourth Quartet, melodies that had been used by his older colleague Mykola Leontovych. In the context of Russia’s aggression it is troubling to remember that Leontovych was killed by the Soviet secret police in 1921. With the Klebanov release I received requests for his scores from all over the world and Klebanov’s voice became one of protest.

A few years ago, the ensemble released a collection of chamber works by the Czech-American composer Walter Kaufmann (1907 -1984) who spent the Hitler years in Bombay (now Mumbai) and produced a considerable amount of chamber music. The violinist and pedagogue Mehli Mehta, Maestro Zubin Mehta’s father, was a close friend and collaborator. Any listener to All India Radio will be familiar with its station ID, a fourteen-note melody, composed by Kaufmann, recorded by Mehli nearly 90 years ago, and still used today. When the ARC Ensemble performed Kaufmann’s String Quartet no. 11 at Toronto’s Koener Hall, Zubin’s son, Mervon, the Executive Director of Performing Arts at the Royal Conservatory, was able to claim a very personal connection. Mehli Mehta, his grandfather, would have led the original ensemble at its Bombay premiere, with Kaufmann playing viola. The quartet, a fascinating amalgam of Indian and Western traditions is now available through Doblinger Verlag, Vienna, but there are another eleven quartets that are waiting to be explored.

Preparing the unknown for performance is very different from the ’oven-ready’ approach that generally accompanies the rehearsal of the familiar. When musicians encounter a new commission, the composer is usually available to offer guidance and advice. When an ensemble – or a soloist, or conductor for that matter – rehearses an unknown composition from the 1920s or 30s, outside help is no longer available. The composer is long dead, as are the musicians who might have had firsthand memories of the work. Only very rarely is there a recording.

When the ARC Ensemble begins this process, every musical decision is made without the convenience, or the complacency, offered by precedent. Questions surrounding tempo, phrasing, bowing, articulation, balance, mood, the relative importance of individual musical lines, and a sense of the composer’s broader intentions present a tabula rasa. The musical text often prompts debate, especially when musicians are playing from scans of a manuscript, rather than a published edition. A misplaced note, a missing ledger line, an ambiguous accidental, dynamic marking or articulation sign, any of these, can halt proceedings and precipitate lengthy discussion. Players are left to draw on their knowledge and experience, and to search for clues in the score, or in other works by the composer. Solutions are often hard-won, and as musicians become more familiar with the piece, opinions can, and do, change.

When an ensemble rehearses an unknown composition from the 1920s or 30s, outside help is no longer available. The composer is long dead, as are the musicians who might have had firsthand memories of the work

The early rehearsals of an unknown work are, in effect, the beginnings of an unravelling, during which essential musical questions are solved. This is the infant state of what will eventually become a performance tradition. ARC’s members tackle the process in an exploratory spirit that is tempered by humour and an acute sense of responsibility. A new work has to be presented in its most flattering light, with the same commitment that is accorded the standard repertoire, where journeys are familiar and the listener will draw on memories of previous performances and recordings. It is the ensemble’s job to make the new sound just as inevitable, comprehensible and hospitable, even though time, reflection and repeat performances will always provide music with more options and depth.

Simon Wynberg - Photo by Stuart Lowe, Oct 18 2022

ARC Ensemble artistic director Simon Wynberg © Stuart Lowe

The ARC Ensemble’s latest recording, which will be released 17 November, is a compilation of chamber works by the German-Jewish composer Robert Müller-Hartmann (1884 – 1950) who fled to England in 1937. Before Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, Müller-Hartmann had enjoyed a successful career. His works had been performed by a number of illustrious conductors: Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Fürtwangler, Karl Muck and Fritz Busch. Artur Schnabel had premiered his chamber music. In England Müller-Hartmann was introduced to Ralph Vaughan Williams and the B.B.C. Symphony’s conductor Sir Adrian Boult, and for a while a second career looked possible. But time ran out and after his death in 1950, Robert’s music vanished from the concert platform. His sons who had emigrated to a kibbutz in the Galilee before the war inherited his scores which were then bequeathed to the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Among the recorded works is a Sonata for Two Violins, op. 32, which is as fun to listen to as it is to play. The score is available here, and you can listen to ARC’s wonderful violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard perform IV. Schnell mit Anmut on ARC’s YouTube channel.

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the ARC Ensemble continues to provide a voice for the hundreds of superbly-trained and highly gifted composers—many graduates of Europe’s most prestigious conservatories—whose careers were disrupted by anti-Semitism and bigotry, and who were forced into exile. Chamber works by Robert Müller-Hartmann will be released on Chandos on 17 November 2023, featuring violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, violist Steven Dann, cellist Tom Wiebe, and pianist Kevin Ahfat.

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