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American Record Guide, February 2007

Music loomed large in Israeli culture even before the Jewish state was founded. Paul Ben­Haim (1897-1984) was a German who had worked at the Bavarian State Opera under Bruno WaIter and Hans Knappertsbusch before leaving for Palestine in 1933. Marc Lavry (1903-67), a Latvian by birth, also was educated in Germany and studied at Leipzig Conservatory. He also studied conducting privately with Walter and Hermann Scherchen. Like Ben-Haim, he left Europe for Palestine when it was still possible to do so. Both composers went on to exert great cultural influence in the fledgling state as they worked to create a sound that combined the western symphonic idiom with Mediterranean and Near Eastern elements drawn from Arabic, North African, Turkish, Asian, and indigenous Israeli sources. Yehezkel Braun (b 1922) is from the succeeding generation of Israeli composers that inherited the new Mediterranean style and took it in directions of their own choosing. All three of the excerpted works here were commissioned by American synagogues (and premiered in them), which explains their inclusion in the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.

The star of this show, I think, is Lavry's Sabbath Eve where Mediterranean and Ashkenazic cantillations are both in evidence, along with some fascinating takes on the liturgy. One is the 'Shema Yisrael', which speaks Judaism's central declaration of faith in the sort of hushed, spiritually rapt voice you often hear intoning the 'Et incarnatus est' in a Christian Mass.

The Hallel is the collection of praise-filled psalms that is chanted in the synagogue at holiday festivals and at the beginning of each month of the Jewish calendar. (You guessed it-it's where the word Hallelujah comes from.) Braun's service packs both a rhythmic punch (Psalm 113) and a spiritual one (Psalm 116). In extroverted interludes, he's the jauntiest of the three. Ben-Haim's Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming the Sabbath) is full of broad symphonic strokes as well as some first-rate writing for the voice. (Indeed, all three composers are generous to their cantorial soloists, who are given lovely melodies and plenty of opportunities to put them across with feeling.) Ben­Haim's most affecting song is given to a solo soprano as she benches licht- chants the blessing over the Sabbath candles.

This is the best performed choral program I've come across in the Milken series. More than any of the others, it pushes across the barrier of "ethnic listening" out into the vocal music mainstream. If you're a choral aficionado, Jewish or otherwise, you'll want to hear what these composers have to say.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, February 2007

I must confess that at first I found the inclusion of this trio of composers to be rather at odds with the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music mission, which I understood from the beginning to be that of reproducing on CD a legacy of works by Jewish Americans. To be sure, many, if not most, of the composers represented in this series were of European or Russian birth who came to these shores and adopted the US as their home. They qualify for inclusion by virtue of being naturalized citizens. The Archive has also included one or two American composers who were not Jewish, but who contributed liturgical works for various synagogue services. In the case of the present CD, however, we have three Israeli composers. What is their connection to American Jewish music? Well, it's tenuous at best; but as it turns out, there are links, and therefore a rationale, for including these three composers and works. Read on.

Paul Ben- Haim (1897-1984) is sure to be the most recognized name here. Born Paul Frankenburger in Munich, Germany, he served as assistant conductor to Hans Knappertsbusch and Bruno Walter from 1920 to 1924. In 1933, he immigrated to Palestine, where he Hebraized his name, and became an Israeli citizen in 1948 when the fledgling nation declared its independence. His music, not entirely unlike that of Ernest Bloch, is in a late or post-Romantic style with an overlay of Middle Eastern exoticisms and 20th-century modernisms. Ben-Haim was first and foremost an Israeli nationalist composer; even his secular compositions, of which he wrote many, incorporate literary or extra-musical references based on ancient Hebrew history and themes. He was not, however, an observant Jew concerned with matters of religion and ritual. Thus, his liturgical compositions for the synagogue are few in number. In 1966, however, Ben-Haim was sent to America by the Jerusalem Joint Center for Action in the Diaspora to represent Israel and participate in a program of the National Federation of Temple Youth (the youth wing of the American Reform movement). The program, initiated by Cantor Raymond Smolover, was called "Arts in Judaism." And it was then and there that Ben-Haim was commissioned to write a full-length Sabbath Eve Service. The resulting work, excerpts of which are heard on this CD, does not conform exactly to the traditional liturgy of the Friday evening service, but the details of how and why are not important to an appreciation of this exquisitely beautiful and moving music. Imagine a work like Janacek's Glagolithic Mass, but sung in Hebrew, and with a synagogue cantor added to the choral mix, and you'll have a reasonable idea of what Ben-Haim's Kabbalat Shabbat sounds like. And what a pleasure it is to listen to Cantor Meir Finkelstein, whose voice and technique are perfectly matched to the music's requirements.

Latvian-born Marc Lavry (1903-1967), immigrated to Palestine in 1935. Like Ben-Haim before him, Lavry had acquired a thorough musical grounding in Europe, having studied at the Leipzig Conservatory under Glazunov, and subsequently, conducting under Bruno Walter and Hennann Scherchen. His Sabbath Eve Sacred Service was commissioned in 1958 by San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El. Even more Romantic than Ben-Haim's work, Lavry's is an interesting mix of styles that seems to reflect influences of his teacher, Glazunov, but also of Mahler, Puccini, and Debussy.

Yehezkel Braun (b. 1922) belongs to the generation of Israeli composers following that of Ben­Haim and Lavry. Born in Breslau, Germany, he came to Palestine in 1924 at the age of two, long before either Ben-Haim or Lavry. His musical background, however, is rather unusual; his interest in ancient, authentic Jewish chant led him in 1975 to study plainsong with Dom Jean Claire at the Abbey of Solesmes in France. His works include orchestral and chamber music, as well as music for theater, film, and television. In 2001, he was awarded the Israel Prize. Braun's Hallel Service was commissioned in 1984 by Congregation B 'nai Jeshurun in Minneapolis in celebration of its centennial anniversary. The Hallel is a special prayer that is added to the services for the three major holidays (Passover, Shavuoth, and Succoth). It is also incorporated into the Passover Seder, recited at the birth of each new moon-the Rosh Chodesh, or head of the month observance-and on the festival of Hannuka. It may also be recited on special occasions unrelated to any holiday or religious observance. Not unexpectedly, Braun's piece is the most modernistic of the three items on the disc. If Ben-Haim's Kabbalat Shabbat put me in mind of Janacek's Glagolithic Mass, Braun's Hallel, especially in its extended sections for solo tenor, evoke associations with Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, or even Carl Orff's chant-like style of writing in his operas. Enough of the jubilant feeling, however, comes through in Braun's score to convince us that the Hallel is a joyous affair, full of "clap your hands, sing God's praises, and shouts of hallelujah."

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

This is another in Naxos' ongoing series of Jewish music in its American Classics series, sponsored by the Milken Archive. As a lad growing up in Israel, names like Paul Ben-Haim and Marc Lavry were very familiar and their works were frequently performed in concerts and on radio, which was the 'Main Event' in the 'thirties and 'forties. At the time, this was considered very 'modern' music, but listening to it now, the works sound very traditional. The performances (sung in Hebrew) are uniformly excellent, with full translations provided.

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