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Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul
24 Aug 2012

Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul

Eternal Echoes is an album of khazones [Jewish cantorial music] for cantorial soloist, solo violin and a blended instrumental ensemble comprising a small orchestra and the Klezmer Conservatory Band.

Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul

Itzhak Perlman, Cantor Yitzhak Meir Helfgot. Produced by David Lai and Hankus Netsky.

Sony Masterworks 88725 42006 2 [CD]

$14.99  Click to buy

Itzhak Perlman’s playing, unmistakable from the first, interacts with the cantorial voice mirroring it, sounding an ethereal descant over it or leading the supporting band. His playing represents the vision of the collection, and sets the tone for each piece. Cantor Yitzhak Meir Helfgot, musically so well matched to Mr. Perlman, is the vocal soloist whose extraordinary voice and abilities prove an irresistible draw. The ten selections, taken mostly from the traditional liturgy, are sung to long-beloved tunes emblematic of the musical palette of Ashkenazic Jewry; the refined arrangements by Hankus Netsky with Jesse Gelber and Dmitri Slepovitch should be as appealing to the khazones newcomer as they are familiar to the khazones connoisseur. In its intimacy, spontaneity and captivating interpolations of dance within song, the presentation is novel, but the album is not a novelty: gimmickry and kitsch are wholly absent. An atmosphere arises akin to that of a kumsitz or farbrengen, a bit informal, but spiritually elevated. In this virtual setting, one gathers with wonderful musicians of varied experiences and backgrounds for the sake of an outpouring of the Jewish soul to God. Instrumentalists, who traditionally put their fiddles, tsimbl, clarinets and horns away on the Sabbath and Jewish holy days, play as if they were Cantor Helfgot’s meshorerim, in music whose natural setting is the shul [synagogue], the Shabbos [Sabbath] table, the simcha [joyous occasion] or the stage.

Of the five pieces customary for shulT’filas Tal [Prayer for Dew], Yism’chu [They Shall Rejoice], R’tzay [Be Favorable], Sheyibone Bays Hamikdosh [May the Holy Temple Be Rebuilt], Kol Nidre [All Vows]—the R’tzay and Sheyibone Bays Hamikdosh are said daily, in fact, multiple times a day. Yitzhak Schlossberg’s R’tzay and Israel Schorr’s Sheyibone elaborate these prayers. Both texts ask for God’s favor that the Temple be rebuilt and the Temple service be restored. Schlossberg’s R’tzay pleads the case for the acceptance of Israel’s prayers with the kind of heightened vocalization—the krekhts—and sheer persistence that is characteristic of khazones. Accompaniment is minimal. By contrast, Schorr’s Sheyibone is a catchy folk-like tune punctuated by vocal displays ascending to high B-flat, high C and a bit beyond, before returning to the earthier main tune. This too is a pleading, but grounded in a tune both delightful and unforgettable.

Yism’chu, a prayer of rejoicing in the Sabbath, precedes R’tzay during the Sabbath day mussaf service. It is sung to an old Hassidic tune that became widely used in non-Hassidic circles thanks to recording and publication. As a prayer of rejoicing, the weight of pleading and heightened text expression is lifted. The folk instruments come forward and a dance in the spirit of Sabbath joy emerges to finish the piece. Hopeful more than joyful, T’filas Tal expresses Israel’s utter reliance upon God to draw blessings down upon the land of Israel. Dew signifies favor, enlightenment, sweetness and abundance: a good decree. Heard once a year on the first day of Passover, it is a composition of the legendary cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. From its overall earnest tone, cadenza opportunities emanate that take flight for both cantor and violinist.

There is no music on the album more famous than that of Kol Nidrei. Arnold Schoenberg, who himself set Kol Nidrei, observed that it is not a single melody or set composition, but a collection of melodic turns that can be rendered in highly individual ways. It is chanted in the evening prior to Yom Kippur [Day of Atonement]. In a real sense, Kol Nidrei is a legal proceeding that must conclude before nightfall concerning the nullification of vows. As stressful as a court appearance is, that stress is never reflected in Cantor Helfgot’s voice or in the arrangement, which prefers intimacy to monumentality. The piece begins with a prelude for the violin based on a tune Elie Wiesel sings in his congregation. The accompaniment is a gentle whisper as Cantor Helfgot begins. While his voice soars through the familiar melodic turns, it never sounds strained, nor does the music ever sound too facile. The violin returns with the High Holy Days nusach offered in the most humble and pure fashion. The ornamented final D-flat is sufficient for closure.

Other works include the Mizmor L’Dovid [23rd Psalm] of Ben Zion Shenker, the great exponent of the Hassidic music of Modzitz, sung widely at the Sabbath table, and the Zionist theatrical piece, Shoyfer shel Moshiach of Abraham Goldfaden. The preference is for music with a connection to Judaism in its immediacy as opposed to music that is already at a remove from Jewish life, like the famous Oyfn Pripetchik. Electronics, key change gimmicks and other elements of pop music are avoided. There is more than sufficient tonal variety thanks to the keys chosen for the arrangements. This album’s stylistic affinities lie with Schubert Lieder and the orchestrations of Joseph Rumshinsky.

What is the album about? This is answered in the first number, A Dudele, a song by the Hassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809). The song, like the psalm and liturgical pieces, is directed to the Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the Universe]. What begins as a rhetorically intensified cry for God’s attention transforms itself into an acknowledgment of God’s omnipresence and nearness. With that realization the rhetorical formalities fall away as a desire for closeness becomes more insistent. It is this particular desire for closeness to the Divine on behalf of the individual, the family, the community, the nation and the world that ultimately speaks to a shared universal desire full of great hope. In this respect, this album should speak to a wide audience.

Steven J. Cahn, Ph.D.
University of Cincinnati

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