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Gramophone, February 2008

As recording projects go, the collaboration between the Milken Archive of Jewish American Music and the Naxos label has been about as ear-opening as it gets. The rationale - to collect, record and document the widest possible selection of music relating to the experience of Jews in 20th-century America; the reality - 50 CDs comprising more than 600 works, only a hundred of which have been commercially recorded before.

This anthology of the complete series is now housed in a handsome presentation case and the inevitable question when you bring it home is ­ where to start? Bypassing discs that came my way during their initial release, I began with Gerard Schwarz's fine performance of Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony and Chichester Psalms boasting Willard White as narrator, while "Bernstein - The Jewish Legacy" is stuffed with world premiere recordings of his occasional sacred pieces; Three Wedding Dances is as charming as anything from Bernstein's output. Milhaud's Service sacre (1947) is another premiere recording and the challenge of setting the complete Hebrew prayer service obviously focused Milhaud's notoriously hit-and-miss mind. Milhaud pupil Dave Brubeck's cantata The Gates of Justice (1969) is a heartfelt multi-faith statement that collages biblical and Hebrew texts with quotations from Martin Luther King. Brubeck's own trio (dig the scintillating piano ­playing) and the Baltimore Chorale Society under Russell Gloyd perform with devotional zeal.

Three volumes of "Great Songs of the Yiddish Stage" made an excellent starting-point for the material I didn't know. This Yiddish vaudeville music flourished in the 1920s and '30s on New York's Second Avenue as an expression of an immigrant population celebrating their roots while absorbing local influences. Vocal strains from Viennese operetta bump into the jitterbugging syncopations of Tin Pan Alley pop songs. Of course many Tin Pan Alley songwriters, including Gershwin and Harold Arlen, had east European Jewish ancestry and these discs make that lineage clear - composers like Joseph Rumshinsky and Abe Elistein had a knack for creating evocative melodies that balanced nostalgia with New World idealism. These new performances recreate the authentic orchestrations and spirit of a forgotten part of New York's musical heritage. And if you're wondering where Benny Goodman and Martha Tilton got their hit record "Bei mir bist du schön" from, the first track on Vol 2 provides the answer.

The intensity of the vocal contribution is an outstanding feature of the set, and the full-bodied, robust singing – with excited throaty rasps and expressive inflections – that characterises these Yiddish stage songs is typical of the commitment heard throughout.

"Traditional Canto rial and Concert Favourites" features Cantor Simon Spiro in a programme of sacred settings designed for concert performance. Spiro's tactile voice has the grandeur of operatic delivery but without the same high degree of stylisation. There's a warm embrace to his voice that I find very attractive – the opening track, Ba'avur David, has, as the booklet-notes explain, the status of a cantorial "warhorse" but this new arrangement by Spiro re-energises the piece with fresh harmonisations. Cantor Benzion Miller offers another disc of "Cantorial Concert Masterpieces", but his finest moment is a fascinating re-creation of a complete S'lihot service. Traditionally sung at midnight, the music is highly melismatic and moves in sustained blocks. After the ker-ching of John Tavener and Holy Minimalism, this feels like the Real Deal. Other Jewish vocal traditions are explored in "The Art of Yiddish Song" by Lazar Weiner, performed by his son Yehudi Wyner, and in two volumes of "Scenes from Jewish Operas", focusing on composers like David Schiff, David Tamkin and Ellstein.

A disc featuring jazz clarinettist David Krakauer in "Klezmer Concertos and Encores" makes an explicit link between vocal and instrumental traditions. Klezmer literally means "instrument of song" and Krakauer's visceral, shrill clarinet­playing elevates already characterful scores by Robert Starer and Osvaldo Golijov; Klezmer Rounds by Paul Schoenfield for flute, tenor and orchestra is an effervescent reimagining of Hassidic party music. "Jewish Music of The Dance" contains more demonstrative sounds, this time from Milhaud, Leon Stein and Lazare Saminsky, but the real find is the ballet The Man from Midian (1942) by Stefan Wolpe. Hardvore avant-garde music is notable by its absence in the set (no Feldman for instance), and Wolpe's flinty take on Middle Eastern melodies and harmonieshas at least one ear open to post-Schoenbergian possibilities.

Another major discovery is a fully restored recording of the Genesis Suite (1945). This piece has gained mythic status because of its unlikely remit - Hollywood film composer Nathaniel Shilkret commissioned seven composers, including Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Milhaud and Mario Castelnuovo­Tedesco, to contribute to a retelling of Old Testament Bible stories for narrator, chorus and orchestra. Schoenberg and Stravinsky famously ignored each other during the rehearsal period, and that's pretty much all anyone remembers about the piece. In truth it's an awkward stylistic hotchpotch, a freak of history, but Schoenberg's Prelude is rarely played and it's a fine example of his tautly expressive mature style. Other discoveries are a more specialised indulgence: Jacob Weinberg's Piano Concerto No 2 is tepid Romantic pastiche and Samuel Adler's Symphony No 5 drowns itself in cliché.

So, as with any set like this, there's a certain amount of sucking and seeing to be done. David Stock's spectacular dramatic cantata The Little Miracle was a welcome surprise, and it was good to see Leonard Bernstein's right-hand man Jack Gottlieb represented with a dedicated disc of his music. But even when the music falls short, the high standards of accompanying documentation make the effort a pleasure.

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