, September 2007
Herman Berlinski is one of those musical personalities whose Jewish heritage played as vitally important a role in the creation of his music as Messiaen’s Catholicism played in his. Berlinski said that he doubted that there was any music he wrote which did not embody his Jewish existence. This is certainly immediately obvious as soon as you listen to it. His music has the same sense of suffering and the ability to overcome it that is found in some black music. It makes for a powerfully emotional experience. One reviewer said of another of his works on Naxos (Avodat Shabbat) that “There are passages in Berlinski’s work of such aching beauty that if you are not moved to tears you are made of sterner stuff than I am.”
Each of the works on this disc is a good introduction to the breadth of expression that Berlinski brings to his music and makes the listener want to explore further. It is interesting to note that though he was born in Leipzig of Polish parents his musical roots draw on that eastern European Jewish legacy that begins east of Germany’s borders. Anyone who is familiar with klezmer will hear its influence in this music; try track 2 to hear what I mean. This was due to the insistence of his father that though he wanted his children to be “modern German Jews” he also wanted them to be acquainted with their eastern European heritage. He also engaged a tutor to teach them Yiddish. There is no indication in the liner notes, which are extremely comprehensive and well written, that Berlinski ever wrote any music for film. I this found surprising because he would have produced some superb music for that medium. He has that facility for producing powerful sweeping themes that would fit neatly into so many movies.
‘From the World of my Father’ is a suite that Berlinski reconstructed from his recollections of music he had written in Paris just before the war when he was forced to leave. His parents had emigrated from Lodz in Poland to Germany. He had been writing and arranging music in Paris for an émigré Yiddish art theatre known as PIAT. This music is a portrayal of the world of his parents and their parents before them. It aimed to encompass traditions, hopes, fears, joys, persecutions – in short to present in music as a microcosm of the Jewish world of eastern Europe. It achieves these aims wonderfully and is never banal but full of typical Jewish melodies woven into a brilliantly evocative piece.
‘Shofar Service’ is a liturgical work using a shofar, usually made of ram’s horn. This may be the oldest surviving wind instrument to have been in continuous use. It is the only musical instrument of any kind mentioned in the Bible that can be positively identified. It was used for summoning people, warning them of approaching danger, announcing the beginning of a period of celebration, of fasting and many other events. This piece was written to be performed during Rosh Hashana or the Jewish New Year - a time with which the shofar is most associated. It is a powerful work in which the shofar is set against the voice of a baritone who entreats the people to harken to the sound of the shofar and to worship the Lord at the holy mountain. Liturgical though it may be it would be extremely effective performed in the concert hall as part of a programme of Berlinski’s work.
‘The Burning Bush’ was commissioned from Berlinski by the distinguished organist of the Emanu-El temple in New York. Berlinski had been encouraged to learn the organ as late as 1951 by Josef Yasser, synagogue organist and musicologist, who offered to teach him. The organ has always fascinated Berlinski but it had not figured on his course in Leipzig where it was principally associated with the church. Taking the Hebrew words eh’ye asher eh’ye (I am that I am) that God spoke when asked by Moses who he should say had appointed him to carry out his mission, Berlinski constructed a reflective cell from those words. This rhythmic cell pervades the piece. It was first performed in 1956 by Robert Baker - who commissioned it - to great acclaim. It helped establish Berlinski’s reputation in Great Britain, Europe and America as one of the most gifted contemporary composers for the organ.
The final work on the disc is ‘Symphonic Visions for Orchestra’ a semi-programmatic tone-poem inspired by various biblical images, passages and sentiments. Once again it shows the power of expression that Berlinski has. It makes a fitting end to a disc of music that will hopefully gain a new wave of admirers - of whom I am certainly one - for a truly original musical voice. The disc is a great start for those wishing to explore this composer’s music. The recordings are bright, clear and well played by clearly committed musicians who have taken to this wonderfully harmonious and melodic music.