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On Wings of Jewish Songs — Music from the New Jewish School
26 Sep 2005

On Wings of Jewish Songs — Music from the New Jewish School

Yiddish is a language based on medieval German that developed separately from modern German. It spread throughout Eastern Europe, where it acquired words from Hebrew, as well as Russian, Polish, and other Slavic languages.

On Wings of Jewish Songs — Music from the New Jewish School

Hänssler Classic 093041000 [CD]


Beginning in the late nineteenth century, serious writers such as Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Nachman Bialik, and Mendele Moicher Sforim produced poetry, stories, and novels in Yiddish that captured the imagination of Jews worldwide. At the same time, Jews became conscious of a repertoire of songs and melodies--old ones passed down from earlier generations and new ones that sprang up--in Yiddish, as well as sacred music in Hebrew. Collections of such music were published, beginning in the early twentieth century and continuing till today.

What is called the “New Jewish School of Music” has its roots in these secular and sacred songs, which from the early twentieth century were also used by “serious” or “classical” composers. For this recording, the artists have chosen 36 items that date primarily from the first half of the twentieth century, some for solo piano, most for voice and piano.

The singer featured on this CD is the American-born and -educated mezzo-soprano Helene Schneidermann, who has been with the Stuttgart State Opera for more than twenty years. She has performed dozens of roles in opera houses in the United States, Europe, and Israel, including Carmen, Orlofsy in Fledermaus, Maddalena in Rigoletto, and Rosina in The Barber of Seville. Her rich mezzo voice is excellent for the more serious works on the recording, but Schneidermann also gives a spirited and light-hearted rendering when it is called for. One of the latter, “Ich bin a bal-agole” (I am a coachman), was written by Solomon Rosowsky (1878-1962). Son of the cantor and composer Baruch Leib Rosowsky, Solomon was a composer, musicologist, collector and editor of Jewish music, music critic, teacher, and author of The Cantillation of the Bible: The Five Books of Moses.

Interspersed between the songs are four sets of works for solo piano by Alexander Krejn, his “Jewish Dances,” op. 50, performed by Jascha Nemtsov. Born and educated in Russia, Nemtsov graduated with distinction from the Leningrad Conservatory in 1986, and six years later moved to Stuttgart, Germany, where he still lives. His sensitive playing of the solo works and the relatively simple accompaniments suits the music very well.

Like Rosovsky, Krejn (1883-1951) was born into a musical family. His father was a klezmer musician who played violin at Jewish weddings, and his six brothers all became musicians. Kreijn achieved his greatet success as a composer for the Yiddish theater in Russia during the 1920s. The Opus 50 dances are drawn from some of his theater works. After Jewish music was banned in the Soviet Union, Kreijn wrote works unrelated to his career up till then.

The best-known of the composers on this CD is Lazare Saminsky, who is represented by four works at the beginning and three at the end of the recording. Saminsky, who grew up in Russia and emigrated to New York when he was nearly 40, became music director for Temple Emanuel, which has been called the “Vatican” of the Reform Jewish movement. If anyone can be called the Grand Old Man of New Jewish Music, it is Saminsky (whose dates, 1882-1959, are erroneously given as 1959-1982!).

The first work on the recording is “Shir Hashirim,” Saminsky’s setting of the first few sentences of the Song of Songs in Hebrew. It is appropriately prayer-like, featuring simple harmonies played mostly in chords in the piano. It sticks close to the tonic, like Torah chanting, and features flourishes at ends of some of the sentences. The Hebrew pronunciation (as well as the transliteration in the booklet) are inconsistent and, in some places, simply wrong. Nevertheless, starting off the recital with a prayerful Bible passage sets a good tone for what is to come.

Of the other composers represented on this CD, the best known is Joseph Achron (1886-1943), whose “Po En-Harod” (Here is En-Harod) in Hebrew is a tribute to a kibbutz in Israel.

Michael Ochs

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