Not every composer is lucky enough to have a whole CD of his music recorded by one of the world’s most celebrated conductors. For the French-Israeli composer Nimrod Borenstein , the disc by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy is more than just a dream come true.
“Ashkenazy performed several of my works and said to me afterwards that we should do a CD together,” Borenstein tells me over coffee near his home in Chiswick. “I thought, ‘Great, but perhaps he is just being nice…’” Six months later, Ashkenazy repeated the suggestion, but Borenstein still couldn’t quite believe it.
“Then, a couple of years ago he said again: ‘So, when are we going to do this CD?’ — and I thought OK, maybe I’m being rude and ridiculous.” The resulting recording’s central work is Borenstein’s Violin Concerto, starring the dynamic Greek-Polish virtuoso violinist Irmina Trynkos, Borenstein’s own choice of soloist and already a great champion of his music.
Borenstein started off as a violinist himself. A child prodigy in violin and composition, he had to choose between the two. “When I was about 13, I went to see Daniel Barenboim,” he says, “and he told me: ‘You can’t be both a violinist and a composer — it won’t work.’ I didn’t believe him. But when I was in my early twenties and had to make a living, I quickly realised he was right.
“There simply isn’t the time to compose if you’re giving concerts. I think the turning point was when I heard that Chopin only performed around 30 concerts in his entire life. As a violinist now, if you did only 30 concerts per year, your agent would sack you!” There was no question that composing would win, and he has never looked back.
He came to London to study at the Royal College of Music and has lived here ever since, long settled in west London with his wife Ellie and their daughter, Alma. Immensely prolific — the Violin Concerto is his Op.60 — he has tried his hand at almost every genre, from ballet to a cappella choral music, with the exception of opera (thus far, anyway).
The titles of his works are often attractive, such as The Big Bangand the Creation of the Universe, also on the CD; but he writes the music first and finds the title later. “I regard all music as essentially abstract,” he explains. “That piece is basically a symphony.”
As for the violin concerto, it was, he says, a pressure to create a major work for his own instrument. “I wanted to write a big concerto,” he affirms, “something in the vein of Brahms.” He thinks big: “I like the idea of beauty and of greatness,” he declares. But beauty does not have to mean beauty in a traditional, predictable sense, he explains. As for greatness, “if you don’t set out to write something great, the piece won’t be great.”
Borenstein comes from a creative family, its history deeply affected by Holocaust tragedy. His paternal grandmother, from Lvov, was one of 11 siblings; only two survived the war. The family eventually settled in Israel, where Borenstein’s father, the artist Alec Borenstein, studied before meeting his wife and moving to France.
Borenstein’s Jewish side is cultural rather than religious, he says, but he picks out one quality that he considers deeply Jewish. “I found myself sitting next to a Chasid on a plane recently,” he recounts, “and we talked for four hours. My impression was that, in certain ways, I am actually more Jewish than he is, even though I’m basically an atheist.
“I think questioning everything is a very Jewish trait — even questioning God. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the writings of Freud, Marx and Einstein made revolutionary impacts. On the other hand,” he smiles, “Beethoven was also revolutionary…”
Even for Beethoven, establishing a career as a composer was no easy matter. But, for Borenstein’s generation (he is 47) a particular challenge lies in forging a personal sound in an era dominated by a modernist style that, in his view, is long past its sell-by date. As a child, he once invented a 12-tone musical style, not knowing Schoenberg had done so decades earlier. He jettisoned it for a more flexible, personal approach in which rhythm is a vital driving force (“there has to be a pulse, because otherwise there isn’t any rhythm”), and melody is crucial, yet often with numerous different melodic lines layered together simultaneously.
“I think art has to be moral,” he declares. In other words, it must have integrity and not be motivated by extraneous forces, such as commercial gain — “the thing is, there are many ways of being commercial. I mean you can choose to write in a style that is the accepted way of the establishment, so you write ‘plink plink plink’ and as a result you get the commissions. That’s commercial.”
He points out that literature and art have long since moved on from post-war modernism, “but in music we have been stuck with this style for 60 years. It has gone stale — in fact, it probably went stale immediately. But this is a big part of why we have a problem attracting audiences for new music.”
For that reason, he would rather his music was performed alongside Mozart’s than beside other contemporary composers. “I’m against the idea of programming entire concerts of new music. At any point in history, the vast majority of pieces that are written are rubbish! And if you consistently feed your audiences work that isn’t good, they might not come back.
“I want my music to be played alongside Mozart, because I want to measure it. I want to see for myself whether it stands up. That is the only way to tell.”
The recording of Nimrod Borenstein’s ‘Violin Concerto’, ‘The Big Bang and the Creation of the Universe’, and ‘If You Will It, It Is No Dream’ is out now, played by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, on Chandos CHAN 5209.