, August 2006
Charles Davidson is probably best known for his composition I Never Saw Another Butterfly (1971), which sets children’s poetry written in the Terezin concentration camp. On this present CD, three slightly lesser works are given successful performances issued as part of the Milken Archive of American Jewish music issued on Naxos.
Davidson, like so many American composers, is thoroughly competent in a range of musical styles and idioms and interested in the creative combinations such idioms allow. The three works on this CD are strikingly different from one another, and if none of them are perhaps of the very first order, all are of real interest and all reward attentive listening.
The earliest of them, ... And David Danced Before the Lord, was something of a pioneer in the incorporation of something of the musical language of jazz and blues into a setting of the Sabbath Eve service. It was written at much the same time as Gershon Kingsley’s Jazz Psalms, also now available on Naxos (see reviews by Steve Arloff ; Adam Binks and Glyn Pursglove ). Davidson’s setting was written and first performed to a commission from cantor Richard Botton, premiered in Long Beach, New York and broadcast on CBS television. The booklet notes by Neil W. Levin – as exhaustive and interesting as they are for all of these Milken releases – tell us that "in the congregation that night was a teenage Billy Crystal, on whom the work made so great an impression that he requested it years later for his own daughter’s bar mitzvah in California"! The work alternates between Hebrew and English and, for all its employment of jazz inflections and rhythms, Davidson’s music is thoroughly steeped in the musical traditions of the synagogue; the two traditions are - on the whole – blended pretty successfully. Douglas Webster is a particularly swinging baritone! At times Davidson’s jazz language seems a little ‘bookish’ and to come less than completely naturally, but in this performance the idiomatic playing of instrumentalists such as Ricker, Vatalaro and Thompson do much to convince the listener. This is an intriguing musical ‘fusion’ which soon persuades one that it is much more than merely a gimmick.
A Singing of Angels sets nine Yiddish folk songs from Eastern Europe, in English language versions. Neil Levin’s notes provide generous detail on the origins and history of each song – information which adds much to the pleasure one gets from listening to Davidson’s own versions. Particular pleasures include "If Dreams Came True", in which Davidson’s addition of a triple-meter countermelody works particularly well, and the vitality of his version of "The Merry Rebbe Elie". "My Pages are Snowy White" has real charm and "In the Valley" responds attractively to a strange, playful text. Throughout the singers of the Finchley Children’s Music Group perform the music with understanding and unpretentious innocence, and there is much that is touching and gracious in this sequence.
Davidson’s Baroque Suite, which Levin aptly describes as "a stylised Hebraic echo of Western Baroque musical idioms", was commissioned by the Beth Abraham Youth Chorale, who gave the premiere in Dayton, Ohio, in 1976. It sets poems by the great medieval poet Yehuda Halevi (c.1054-1141). The complete suite is made up of eight movements, four of which are heard here – a courante, a sarabande, a minuet and a fugue. It will be seen from these titles that Davidson’s Baroque Suite is, in part at least, modelled on the dance suites so familiar in the music of the baroque. But this is a choral work, rather than an instrumental composition. And it sets Hebrew texts. Again "fusion" – but not in its all-too-easily derogatory contemporary sense – seems the right word for what Davidson has produced. But there is more than mere pastiche going on here; the results have a plausible, coherent voice of their own. The vocal lines are attractive and undemonstratively ‘Jewish’, the flute obbligati are interesting and well conceived, the harpsichord continuo is thoroughly competent. And, perhaps surprisingly, the whole thing hangs together. I’d like to hear the whole work one day.
There are no revelatory masterpieces here; but there is much music of real intelligence and charm, which draws in a range of idioms with purposeful creative generosity.