, September 2006
Max Helfman was born in Radzin in Poland; his family emigrated to America when he was eight. He received a traditional Jewish religious education and – without the doubtful benefits of a university education – he later established himself as a choirmaster and organist and began to write special settings for various synagogues; especially at Temple Israel in Manhattan. In his late twenties he was awarded a three-year fellowship at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia where he studied piano, composition and conducting - this last with Fritz Reiner. He was active very widely in the field of American Jewish music; his work as director of the Freiheits gezang verein and the Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, politically-leftward-leaning choirs was particularly important and interesting. In 1945 he was appointed artistic director of the new Jewish Arts Committee in New York, established to promote artistic activities loosely in support of the Zionist/Palestinian movement. He also became associated with the supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and the idealistic educator Shlomo Bardin. These associations put him near the centre of the musical life of the American Jewish community, not least through the Brandeis Arts Institute. He became increasingly influential as a teacher. Later he moved to the West Coast of America working first at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and then as Dean of Fine Arts at the Institute of Judaism in Los Angeles, where the staff included Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco, Roy Harris and Lukas Foss. In short, Helfman was a central figure in American Jewish music in the twentieth century - there is a brief biography, Max Helfman: A Biographical Sketch, by Philip Moddel (Berkeley, California, 1974).
The longest work on this CD is Di Naye Hagode (‘The New Haggada’, ‘The New Narrative’). The text, presumably edited by Helfman, is based on the poem Di shots fun varshever geto – The Shadows of the Warsaw Ghetto – by the Russian Yiddish poet Itsik Fefer (1900-52). Neil Levin’s extensive notes provides a moving account of the vile destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, and a fascinating account of Fefer and his ambiguous life and death, valuable contexts for the hearing of Di Naye Hagode. Helfman’s work interweaves spoken contributions, in English, by a narrator and choral passages in Yiddish. The libretto – like the poem on which it is based – is not so much a lament as a commemoration of the active heroism of the Jewish resistance. Helfman’s music has considerable rhetorical power and communicates an appropriate strength of feeling. However, it cannot be said that the music is especially interesting – its power is, as it were, largely the product of its extra-musical content. On second and third listenings I felt more and more that the musical imagination fell some way short of being able to do full justice to its subject matter.
The two shorter works recorded here are musically more satisfying. Indeed, Hag Habikkurim is quite lovely, described as a “choral pageant” and made up of arrangements of eight modern Hebrew songs (one is repeated) sung in Palestine, before the creation of the state of Israel. Helfman intended the work to be part of a presentation that would also incorporate dance, narration and pantomime. Even without such non-musical aids, the optimistic spirit of revival and hope that characterises these songs is beautifully articulated and sensitively performed by the women of the Coro Hebraico. The work’s title translates as ‘Festival of the First Fruits’ and the work communicates both a sense of beginnings and of tribute paid. It is a moving work, to which later events have added an unintended poignancy. The CD closes with extracts from Helfman’s setting of the Sabbath morning Torah Service which, as Levin notes, can perhaps be regarded as a work for the concert hall as much as for ritual use in the synagogue. Particularly impressive is the setting of the beautiful prayer ‘Adonai, Adonai’, memorably performed by Cantor Raphael Frieder.
Something of a mixed bag, then. The most ambitious work here takes on more than the composer can finally handle or resolve musically; in the two ‘lesser’ works there is some fine, striking writing. So far as his music goes – as opposed to his evidently charismatic personality – it is in these two works that one can most clearly hear why Helfman was so highly regarded by so many of his contemporaries and successors.