, March 2005
"The huge American Classics series from Naxos continues to expand apace and the more it does so the more the term classic becomes irrelevant as the criterion for inclusion of works. A "classic" would normally be interpreted as a work of established and "acknowledged excellence" (Oxford dictionary). One of the great things about the Naxos series is that, conversely, it has included within it recordings of American works that have hitherto barely seen the light of day and might well have been forgotten without the Naxos patronage. This may sound like nit-picking but I mention it because this major choral work by Berlinski might never have been recorded if it were not for the fruitful partnership between Naxos and the the Milken Archive. The Archive is dedicated to the preservation, cataloguing and recording of American Jewish music. With its support Naxos has been able to further expand the American Classics series with many first-time recordings. Berlinskis Avodat Shabbat is an important addition.
The composer said, "I don't think I can write a piece of music ... that does not have the stamp of my Jewish experience". In Avodat Shabbat he produced a Jewish liturgical piece, regarding it as his magnum opus. The setting is of the reform version of the Friday evening Sabbath service according to the Union Prayer Book. Although Berlinski first approached the task with specific synagogue use in mind his ambition expanded it into an artwork that, in its revised version, was premiered at the Lincoln Centre. In the extensive, somewhat dense but informative notes in the booklet by Neil W. Levin of the Milken Archive, it is stated that Berlinski was partly motivated by a view that liturgical music in North American synagogues was in "a static, if not fossilized, condition". I am not competent to comment on these matters so can only approach the work as music per se but bearing in mind it is a choral setting of a sacred text.
The style of the music in the context of mid-twentieth century, post-war classical music is conservative with a European eclecticism that betrays the composer’s upbringing. Berlinski was born of Polish parents in Leipzig where he first studied. As a Jew he wisely left Germany in 1933 and furthered his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and the great pianist Alfred Cortot. Probably more influential was his sympathetic relationship with Messiaen. Although Messiaen was a Christian, Berlinski tuned in to his spiritual, religious approach to composition. After the German occupation of France, Berlinski fled to the US.
Some of the musical influences are easily detectable in Avodat Shabbat and can often be identified in separate passages rather than blended into a style of the composer’s own. I sometimes found this disconcerting. For example, the opening orchestral prelude opens with a pretty woodwind, nature-alluding, cleanly textured passage of weaving counterpoint; the sort of thing at which Berlinski excels. But the music then switches into a highly contrasting, string section in a style that could be labelled post-war popular Polish. Panufnik comes to mind but its sentimentality means that it could be straight out of Gorecki’s Third Symphony, a work that busted the classical charts a few years ago. Berlinski’s composition does pre-date Gorecki’s I admit. All three men had studied in Paris.
After the prelude, the tenor, Robert Brubaker sings the opening lines of the Ma Tovu text cantor fashion. Then shortly after the choir enters we are plunged into what sounds like The Dream of Gerontius, a choral masterpiece by another Leipzig-trained man – Sir Edward Elgar.
These jolts of style are analogous to the high contrast in texture and mood between the sections of the work. For example, the following l’kha dodi is mostly a jaunty dance number followed by a setting of psalm 92 with music that could well be out of one of those huge, Hollywood biblical epics from the time Berlinski was writing. The main reason for it sounding so is the use of modal harmonies as well as the bare intervals of fourths and fifths, presumably employed to conjure up an idea of an ancient Middle East, but the source is the same as Berlinski’s: traditional Jewish liturgical music. After psalm 92, Part II starts with a setting of the famous 23rd psalm, sung in English rather than Hebrew. The music here could not be of greater contrast to the previous "epic" style, being an imaginatively sparse dialogue between female voice and solo flute. The music works up to a passionate climax half way through which I thought, not for the only time in this work, was at odds with the text. I am prepared to admit though that this may be as much to do with me as Berlinski. The Anglican settings of the same text that I was brought up with were more restrained.
Once I got used to the lurches of style and to accept them as a feature of Berlinski’s own style, then the listening became much easier.
The blurb on the back of the disc refers to Avodat Shabbat as a "masterpiece". I think that an exaggeration. There is certainly much to enjoy and the music should appeal to a wide audience but I felt that as the different contrasting sections proceeded, the work was not adding up to the sum of its parts, in spite of the melodic and harmonic devices Berlinski uses to try and integrate the whole.
It is heartening to know that Berlinski lived to be able to attend the recording sessions in Germany in 2000 - not long before he died - and to be able to hear the soloists, choir and orchestra give such a convincing and loving rendering under Gerard Schwarz. Committing this work to disc is a major achievement for Naxos and the Milken Archive."