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American Record Guide, February 2007

As the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music nears the end of its releases on Naxos, the American connection is becoming a bit thin. Leon Stein was born in Chicago; Darius Milhaud and Stefan Wolpe spent a little time in America; and Lazare Saminky's connection are as tenuous as the guy in India asking, "Oh, you live in New York. I met a fellow once from California. Do you know him?"

Stein's three dances (1941 and 1946) are called 'Dances of the Joyous, the Enraptured, and the Exultant'. Indeed! This is happy music, exquisitely orchestrated, with the tonal and harmonic language of, say, Anton Rubinstein. Stephen Gunzenhauser captures it with stylistic flexibility-energetic one moment and languishing the next-without making a hash out of it. There's plenty of mood, too, with soft percussive shimmerings. My only reservation is that the engineering here is a bit bright and brittle, without enough bass presence, but that can be adjusted with a few twists of the knobs.

The engineering is much better-rich and resonant from treble to bass-and the playing superb as Gerard Schwarz conducts Milhaud's concert suite from his ballet, Moses, which he conceived in 1940 for the fledgling Ballet Theatre (American Ballet Theatre). It's essentially a set of variations on a motif. If you're a Milhaud fan, you'll love the way he slowly stretches it. If you're not a fan, the motif, which lacks a melodic get-in-your-craw interest, will lose its grip as your mind wanders.

Engineering remains just as rich as Joseph Silverstein conducts the first movement of a suite orchestrated from Wolpe's ballet score for two pianos (1942) inspired by the life of Moses (the man from Midian). The liner notes say that the composer "demonstrated that diatonicism, octatonicism, and dodecaphony are not mutually exclusive systems". Yes, and it's hard to place this music, which, at the end of some scenes, just seems to suddenly stop. It's made even harder because Silverstein plods along at one forte volume with metronomic tempos and little rhythmic interest.

The two excerpts from Saminsky's opera­ballet (1916) are quite excruciating. The engineers serve it up on a flat two-dimensional canvas that doesn't illuminate any orchestral detail. Nor does Mester seem inspired. The chorus sounds merely adequate. And Alberto Mizrahi has one of those tenor voices that makes your knuckles tighten as he becomes constricted and strained just above the mid­range; that is aggravated by his slow wobble. And, even softened by traditional harmonies, the text proclaiming retribution and God avenging the blood of his servants- how contemporary-is enough to make one reject organized religion.

The liner notes are eminently readable, utterly thorough, and will take up the better part of an afternoon.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, February 2007

If the works on "A Hannuka Celebration" were, to a large extent an attempt to modernize the traditional, the works on the present disc are alternately and to a large extent an attempt to traditionalize the modern. By this I mean that what we have here, with the exception of Saminsky's The Vision of Ariel, are strictly orchestral works, accoutered in bright, sequined dresses fabricated from early- to mid-20th century melodic and harmonic materials, none of which would necessarily suggest a Jewish theme or subject, were it not for its title.

Take, for example, Leo Stein's Three Hasidic Dances. Written in 1941, presumably as an academic exercise for a conducting class, it has become one of his most popular pieces. And as Neil Levin states, "With forceful syncopations, enticing rhythms, alluring repetitive patterns, and quasi­improvisational passages, it reflects the mystic fervor, intensity, and ecstatic states of self-induced joy for which Hassidim typically strive." While I concur with the description of the music, I'm not nearly as persuaded of its Hassidic suggestions. What I hear is a very attractive and effective tone poem in a style that seems to take its cue from Mussorgsky's Night on Bare Mountain. Listen from about 2: 12 of the second dance, "Dance of the Enraptured." Either the Chicago-born Stein was strongly influenced by his Ukrainian roots, or Mussorgsky was a Hassid. None of this should be taken as criticism, for I loved the piece; and I can assure anyone who loves the Oriental isms and col­orful orchestral works of Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov that you will too. Placing Stein (1910-2001) in such illustrious company is saying a lot.

Likewise, Milhaud's Ballet Suite from Moise (1947). One might guess the composer from any number of his fingerprints on the score-the passages in polytonality, the bittersweet, slightly soured melodies of the French Les Six school, and the occasional intrusion of a jazz element-but other than its title and the story that inspired its choreographing, stripped of its staging, it is heard here as a purely orchestral work which, in its own way, is yet another most satisfying symphonic tone poem that needs no extra-musical, literary basis for its enjoyment.

The German-born Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972) is not generally thought of as a "Jewish" composer. He is more closely identified by his later activities at Darmstadt and in the US as a figure closely associated with the avant-garde movement of the 1950s, and with his students who included Morton Feldman, Ralph Shapey, David Tudor, and Charles Wuorinen. But that all came later. Earlier, he was an adherent to Schoenberg's 12-tone technique and strongly influenced by Hindemith. Not only a Jew, but also an avowed communist and socialist, Wolpe fled Germany when the Nazis rose to power, and settled for four years (1934-1938) in Palestine. It was during this time that he discovered his Jewish roots.

Again, however, Wolpe's The Man from Midian Ballet Suite (1942) is, at its core, a symphon­ic work that would not, on blind listening, suggest anything relating to its subject matter, which is closely parallel to that of the Milhaud. The reference, of course, is to none other than Moses, and both scores deal with his early years, from his birth in Egypt to his slaying of an Egyptian taskmas­ter and subsequent flight into the desert, where he has his first encounter with God in the form of a burning bush. Milhaud takes the story a bit further, through Moses liberating the Jewish slaves from Egypt, receiving the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, and his smashing of them when he descends from the mountain to find his flock worshipping the golden calf. Wolpe's work, not unexpectedly, is set in a language more modernistic than either the Stein or the Milhaud, but it is by no means a hideous cacophony of avant-garde styles and techniques. It was written well before Wolpe suc­cumbed to music's own axis of 20th-century evils. Put another way, Wolpe's The Man from Midian is a well-crafted, powerful piece of writing that goes a long way, in my personal opinion, towards redeeming this composer's reputation.

While the three preceding works on this CD all have their selling points, it is Lazare Saminsky's excerpts from his opera-ballet, The Vision of Ariel (1916) that goes immediately on the Want List. I will make no bones about it: Saminsky (1882-1959) was a full-blooded Russian Romantic. Once again, certain parallels come to mind with Mussorgsky, this time to Boris Godunov, especially in the magnificent Eastern Orthodox-sounding choral prayer that concludes the work. Also reminiscent of Boris is Ariel's luminescent soliloquy, in Hebrew, sung by Alberto Mizrahi, beginning at 4:23 of scene I (track 18). Saminsky's work actually ties this CD back to "A Hannuka Celebration," in that the story it tells is of both the Hannuka and Purim legends, as reflected through the lens of the Spanish Inquisition. Ariel, in a state of transported rapture, relives the plight of the persecuted Jews from Persian and Syrian-Greco times. A complete recording of this work is an urgent necessity.

Giv Cornfield, Ph.D.
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, November 2006

The series of recordings of Jewish music in America and elsewhere is made possible by the Milken Family Foundation, established in 1982 by brothers Lowell and Michael Milken. Promotion of music is only one of the many ways in which this foundation seeks to help people to lead productive and satisfying lives. In this release, the main selections - by Milhaud and Wolpe - are inspired by the story of Moses and performed with great care and affection by German radio orchestras. The extensive program notes included with the dics amount to an education in the history of Jewish music in America.

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