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Music from the ghetto

London Chamber Orchestra, Simca Heled (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: November 2018
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Christopher Warren-Green & Tim Oldham
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: June 2023
Total duration: 59 minutes 51 seconds

Adored by cellists and audiences alike since its premiere in 1881, Max Bruch's Kol Nidrei provides the grand opener for a diverse programme exploring Jewish musical traditions.

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The central thread linking all the works featured in this recording is their assimilation of various elements of Jewish music, whether directly stemming from Chassidic folk traditions, or relating to material directly associated with religious worship. Each composer responds to this music in different ways, attempting in varying degrees to integrate it within the structural conventions of a Western European musical mainstream. By doing so, the music projects a multitude of emotions and feelings. There are passages of contemplation, mourning, longing for God and redemption, as well as fleeting visions of hope and consolation. Yet the trauma of persecution and exile, which has affected Jewish people for so many centuries, is never far from the surface.

Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei was one of the nineteenth-century composer’s best-known works. Although Bruch was staunchly allied to a conservative German musical tradition drawing inspiration in particular from the works of Mendelssohn and Schumann, he was equally fascinated by non-German music, and his output contains a number of compositions inspired by Celtic, Scottish, Swedish and Russian folk material. Kol Nidrei, subtitled an 'Adagio on two Hebrew melodies for cello and orchestra', falls into this latter category. It was inspired to a large extent by Bruch’s long-standing association with Cantor Abraham Lichtenstein with whom he had worked in Berlin. Through Lichtenstein, Bruch, who was baptised into the Protestant Church, became familiar with the haunting melody of Kol Nidrei which was traditionally sung on the eve of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) in the synagogue. Bruch’s transcription, composed in the early 1880s, faithfully projects what his biographer Christopher Fifield describes as the melody’s contrasting 'elements of remorse, resolve and triumph' by breaking it up into a sequence of almost breathless three-note patterns in the solo cello as it engages in increasingly impassioned dialogue with the orchestra.

The storm subsides with the introduction of an entirely new and wonderfully heartfelt melody in the major key. This is initially announced by the orchestra with prominent harp arpeggios, before it is taken up by the cello which spins a long lyrical line that eventually brings the music to a calm and reflective conclusion. Here Bruch quotes directly from the middle section of British-Jewish composer Isaac Nathan’s arrangement of O weep for those that wept by Babel’s stream. Coincidentally, this melody also formed the basis for one of Bruch’s Three Hebrew Choruses which was composed at roughly the same time.

Kol Nidrei received its first performance at a concert in Liverpool in 1881 with Brahms’s favourite cellist Robert Hausmann as soloist. It quickly became a favourite piece for all cellists and despite its relative brevity, retains a secure place in the concert repertoire to this day.

Daniel Shalit, one of the leading contemporary Israeli composers, was born in 1940. He studied piano, French horn, composition and conducting at the Israel Academy of Music in Tel-Aviv, and later at the Guildhall School of Music in London. Returning to Israel in 1962, he joined the Israel Chamber Ensemble, working as a harpsichordist and later as associate conductor. For a time, he taught musical theory, musicology and philosophy at Tel-Aviv University, but now devotes himself mainly to teaching Jewish philosophy as well as writing several books on Judaism and its relationship with contemporary culture.

Shalit’s compositional output includes music for piano solo, voice and piano, chamber ensemble and orchestra. Of the two works featured here, Resisey laila (Out of the dark) for symphony orchestra is the most recent, having been composed in 1997. On initial acquaintance, this ten-minute composition, whose emotional trajectory moves inexorably from the depths of despair to a mood of defiance, conveys an almost improvisatory feeling. Undoubtedly, part of this impression comes from the rhythmic fluidity and apparent spontaneity of Shalit’s musical material. Yet in fact, the composer exerts a tight grip on the structure of the work, casting it in the form of a theme and four variations.

The theme is heard at the outset in an ominous-sounding fragmentary recitative for unaccompanied solo horn, characterised by ornamentation and recurring grace notes with a strong emphasis on the intervals of a minor third and a flattened seventh. According to the composer, the theme is in fact an original Chassidic melody—a haunting chant which was sung to him by Rabbi Eli Rivkin, a gifted Chassid in Kfar-Habad (Habad Chassidic Village), Israel. Shalit added that Eli Rivkin 'was the only one of his whole family to survive the Holocaust, having been sent before World War II at the age of twelve to live with his grandfather in Manchester, England where he learnt hundreds of Chassidic melodies which he then brought over with him to Israel'.

As the recitative melody continues in the horns, Shalit adds new instrumental colours: first, string harmonics which are then followed by the gradual introduction of all woodwind instruments and more horns as the music moves to an emphatic unison climax. In the final bar, the solo horn is left unaccompanied, completing the chant with a downward glissando.

The ensuing variations follow the melodic and expressive trajectory of the theme, each one building up to an equally powerful climax, but reflecting slightly different emotional states. In the first variation, swaying ascending and descending exotic scales in the strings are punctuated by the epic sounds of a piano and gong. Woodwind and brass fanfares enter the fray before the reintroduction of the scalic pattern on the strings.

In a noticeable change of tonal centre, the second variation opens with furtive and increasingly anxious two-note and three-note patterns in the strings followed by ostinato rhythms in the piano and woodwind and a lamenting clarinet solo. After this comes a more mysterious sounding passage scored for divided strings and pizzicato bass, before the eruption of another frenzied wind and brass climax over tremolando strings. At the end of the variation, the two and three-note patterns return to lead us directly into the third variation. Here a muted solo violin takes up the intervallic characteristics of the Chassidic chant, transforming them into a klezmer-like dance that becomes increasingly animated as the rest of the orchestra takes over the theme. The sinister string harmonics, heard at the opening, then return, the rest of the orchestra joining in on a sustained unison D that, like the famous passage near the end of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, gets louder and louder. The opening horn chant returns in the fourth and final variation alternating with percussive rhythms on the timpani with increasing emphasis on the interval of the minor third. The full orchestra then takes up this melodic pattern in unison with ever greater rhythmic insistence, bringing the work to a dramatic conclusion.

In comparison to Resisey laila, three of the five movements of Shalit’s suite for string orchestra, written in 1993, embrace a more restrained neo-classical style, even if the melodic and harmonic language derive from the same sources. The work opens with a rhythmically vibrant and energetic Prelude in the Dorian mode. In contrast, the ensuing Rondeau begins in a more lyrical reflective manner, but becomes increasingly animated with an unexpected doubling of speed and a mysterious passage marked flautando (to be played over the fingerboard) at the close. This paves the way for the much more sombre levels of expression explored in the third movement subtitled Niggun, an almost Mahlerian funeral march characterised by halting and uneasy two-note melodic patterns evoking the despair of exile. ‘Out of the depth’, the subtitle of the fourth movement, starts with a darkly scored and gloomy melody in the minor key on the lower strings. As the pitch and the emotional temperature gradually rises, the mood starts to change, the main melody transformed from a dark minor to an increasingly optimistic, one could say almost redemptive, major key. At the climax, there is a dramatic cadence with fast flowing trills and demi-semiquavers in the violins sounding almost like a peal of bells. The ensuing Postlude recapitulates the material originally heard in the Prelude. But in this new context Shalit’s musical ideas seem to take on an even greater vigour and sense of positivity.

Yehezkel Braun was born in Breslau Germany (now Wrocław, Poland) in 1922 and died in 2014, aged 92. In 1924, he moved with his family to British Palestine and subsequently spent some of his earlier years working on a Kibbutz. During World War II, he fought in Italy as a volunteer for the Jewish Brigade of the British Army. Initially, he intended to pursue a career as a farmer, but his passion for music was so strong that he decided to undertake formal musical training at the Israeli Academy of Music in Tel-Aviv. After graduation, he became a music teacher and later joined the music faculty of Tel-Aviv University, eventually securing the post of Professor of Music. In 1975 he studied Gregorian Chant with Father Dom Jean Claire in the Benedictine Monastery of Solesmes in France, coupling his research interests in this particular field with a lifelong fascination for traditional Jewish melodies.

Braun was an extremely prolific composer writing works for choir, orchestra, chamber ensemble and vocal music, as well as providing scores for several films, the theatre and dance companies. His output includes concertos for piano, flute, horn and harp, Sinfonia concertante for violin and orchestra, Noctuae Carmina for viola and orchestra, Symphonic Dances, Divertimento for orchestra, Hallel for tenor, mixed choir and orchestra, The Jordan Valley (a dance suite for chamber orchestra) and Illuminations to the Book of Ruth for chamber orchestra.

Min HaAyara (From the Shtetl), a suite for violin and a chamber orchestra, was completed in 2007 and draws its material from music Braun originally composed for the play Hershel of Ostropol. The work also exists in alternative versions for voice, violin and piano and for chamber orchestra with trumpet and clarinet, both instruments that are closely associated with Klezmer music. From the Shtetl evokes nostalgic memories of Chassidic dance music that would have been heard in a Jewish village or town in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. It is a skilfully put together and imaginatively scored unbroken sequence of dance movements encompassing contrasting moods and tempi and cast in a direct and immediately accessible musical language.

With Lelero (In memoriam) for cello solo by Leib Ailenberg, we come even closer to an authentic representation of Chasidic music. As cellist Simca Heled explains:

Leib Ailenberg, who perished in Auschwitz in 1943, was my grandfather on my mother’s side. His short compositions, influenced by the Gur Chassidic Movement, were always sung by him, but were never written down. My mother learned some of his songs and sung them to my brother, composer Daniel Shalit, who made an arrangement of Lelero for cello and piano, again without writing it down. Years later, when I moved to New York, I recast the work for solo cello in the version that is presented in this recording.

Lelero draws upon the rich variety of melodies sung by the Chassids of the Gur Movement. Its overriding mood is melancholic and sad, engaging in a kind of dialogue between two different people, yet the work presents listeners with something of a conundrum as to whether the dialogue in question represents some kind of personal argument or a debate about a profound philosophical issue.

Erik Levi © 2023

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