The ongoing war between the cantors and the congregants usually turns to a cease-fire when the High Holy Days arrive. For a few days each year, even the most fervent would-be singers are content to let the pros handle the more difficult repertoire. (Especially on an empty stomach.) But on the CD turntable, the tension between liturgy as performance and liturgy as prayer goes on. These recent recordings, mostly of prayer and Biblical texts run the gamut from “follow the bouncing chazan” to “shut up and listen.”
Leonard Bernstein: “Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish),” “Chichester Psalms” (Milken Archive/Naxos)
For all his conservatory training, for all his years as musical director of great orchestras, Bernstein was fundamentally a man of the theater, and his symphonic and choral works owe more to the stage than to the recital hall. These two Jewish-themed compositions offer a reminder of his powerful sense of drama. Bernstein’s third symphony juxtaposes his own rather ponderous text with the Mourner’s Kaddish. As performed here by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, directed by Gerard Schwarz, the emphasis falls rather unflatteringly on the composition’s occasionally forced drama. However, at the heart of the symphony is a moment of astonishing beauty. Nobody expresses yearning better than Bernstein, and the soprano solo in the middle section of the symphony is one of the most moving examples of this emotion in all his work, helped in no small part by its context in the midst of the sturm und drang of the first section. The bombast that precedes the solo, beautifully sung here by Yvonne Kenny, is precisely what gives it such profound power: a moment of peace in the eye of the hurricane. By contrast, “Chichester Psalms,” written two years later, is remarkably gentle, almost sweet. Bernstein apparently disdained the piece for precisely that reason, yet it is one of the most effective expressions of both his Jewishness and his deeply spiritual side. Rating: HHHH
“Liturgie Juive: Sept Grands Cantors”
This is the real deal: a two-CD collection of astonishing performances from, arguably, the seven best purveyors of Golden Age cantorial music:
Pierre Pinchik, Berele Chagy, Zavel Kwartin, David Roitman, Yossele Rosenblatt, Mordecai Hershman and Gerson Sirota. If you haven’t yet dipped into the world of virtuoso cantors, this is definitely the place to start. The remastering is excellent, with lively sound. The musical choices are excellent, with a generous helping of High Holy Day selections, including Kwartin’s “Kol Nidre” and Rosenblatt’s “Avinu Malkeinu.” A must-have set unless you already have a lot of these recordings. Available from Hatikvah Music (www.hatikvahmusic.com or 1-323-655-7083). Rating: HHHHH
Greg Siegle: “Vessels” (MindzEye Music)
Siegle is a young acoustic guitarist, a virtuoso in the John Fahey-Leo Kottke vein, who has turned his quick, expressive hands to Jewish music. The tunes he essays are mostly familiar ones from Shlomo Carlebach, but he gives them a refreshingly light reading. The result is a very pleasant diversion that should make its way onto a lot of turntables as a prelude to sundown and the holy days. Available from email@example.com.
Rating: HHHH stars.
Craig Taubman: “Inscribed: Songs for Holy Days” (Craig and Co.)
Craig Taubman‘s previous folk- and pop-tinged CDs have been pleasant but have seldom displayed the emotional intensity that one tries to bring to the High Holy Days. However, “Inscribed” is a cut above his previous work. The production is less busy and Taubman allows his sweet, light tenor to carry more of the emotional weight of the material. The simplicity of his tunes actually works to their benefit here, because the weightiness of the themes don’t require anything trickier. The result is Taubman’s best album to date, as befits the solemnity of the Days of Awe.
Rating: HHH 1/2 stars.
Cantor Moshe Tessone: “Odeh La’El” (self-distributed)
Cantor Tessone is director of the Sephardic Community Program at Yeshiva University in addition to teaching at YU’s Belz School of Jewish Music, and this self-produced CD combines those two roles neatly with a program of Sephardic song. Tessone has a wonderfully offhand delivery that admirably suits the sprightly, lively music included here. I could do without the heavily electronic backup, which occasionally veers dangerously close to Maghrebi disco, but Tessone wears his learning (and teaching) lightly. Available from firstname.lastname@example.org. Rating: HHHH stars.
“Yedid Nefesh – Amant de Mon Ame” (Alpha).
In the eight or nine years I’ve done this column, I’ve heard a lot of Sephardic music, but this CD is unlike any of the others I’ve reviewed. This is dark, eerie music, using mostly familiar instrumentation for the genre —tar, hand drums, viola da gamba —but with two major deviations. First, there is the addition of the chifonie, a sort of early hurdy-gurdy with a plaintive, reedy sound; second, the four musicians here work with a lot of empty space, isolating voices and instruments to great, if disconcerting, effect. The texts run the gamut from liturgical poems to love songs, and the overall impression left is haunting, disturbing and beautiful. Not to all tastes but definitely worth hearing at least once. Available from www.alpha-prod.com.
Rating: HHHH 1/2 stars.