Hitting The High Notes

Hitting The High Notes

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Singers from Irene Abendroth, Austrian soprano, to Benno Ziegler, German baritone, and composers from Achron to Zilbertz, with stops along the way for Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, Bellini, Puccini and Verdi.

Fifteen hours of music, over 600 complete selections from more than 150 artists.

When Harold Byrnes takes up a hobby, he doesn’t kid around.

The latest product of Byrnes’ lifelong hobby of collecting recorded music is an extraordinary CD-ROM called “Stars of David,” and that is where all that music can be found. (And with a repertoire that includes enough liturgical music to make up most of a yumtov service, it’s a perfect Passover gift.)

The disk, the product of over a year and a half of work, is a labor of love for Byrnes and his friend and partner Mike Richter.

Or you could say that the disk is the product of a lifetime of play for the 71-year-old Byrnes. The Detroit-born Byrnes dates his interest in collecting records back to his childhood.

“My grandparents had an old wind-up Victrola,” he recalled in a phone interview from his home in Albany. “I used to play records of Caruso and Chaliapin. From the time I was 10 years old, I was playing phonograph records; that’s what got me hooked.”

He does mean hooked. He refers half-jokingly to the collecting bug as “a sickness.” He doesn’t even know exactly how many recordings he has. “Thousands, from old 78s to the newest CDs,” he said. “I still collect. Reel to reel tape, cassettes, whatever the medium is, I’ve got some. But 78s are my basic interest.”

Most of the music on “Stars of David” and its predecessor, a CD-ROM compilation of male singers from the British Commonwealth, “Men of Empire,” derives from Byrnes’ massive stacks of 78 rpm recordings.

The selection principle behind “Stars of David” was simple, Byrnes explained. “They had to have been either operatic singers or cantors with operatic quality voices,” he said.

And they had to have been Jewish.

In the CD-ROM’s introduction, Byrnes writes, “All but one of the singers here represented were born of at least one Jewish parent, and although some of them may not have followed the Jewish faith throughout their lives, they are included not because of religious practice, but based on their beginnings, the childhood experiences which may have shaped their development.”

There were some real surprises, even for a serious fan like Byrnes.

“The biggest surprise had to be the Hungarian tenor Desider Aranyi,” Byrnes said. “It never in a million years would have occurred to me that he was Jewish, but his real name was Desider Goldberger, and his father was a cantor.”

Aranyi died in 1923 and most of his recordings date from the turn of the century. His inclusion on the disk makes available some of the rarest music the set has to offer.

Where there are surprises, there are inevitably going to be disappointments, and Byrnes readily admits that there are favorite performers he omitted because it proved impossible for him to document their ostensible Jewish roots.

“Someone told me that Claudia Muzio’s tombstone has a Star of David next to her birthdate and a cross after her date of death,” he said. “But that was the only information we had on her regarding a Jewish connection, so we didn’t include her on the disk. Someone else told me that Tito Gobbi’s mother was Jewish, but we couldn’t document that either.”

Where the Jewish roots are strongest, the result is one of the disk’s most charming features, a wealth of multigenerational connections. Among others, “Stars of David” includes both the legendary Yossele Rosenblatt and his son, Henry; operatic tenor Neil Shicoff and his cantor father, Sidney; and my favorite pairing, soprano Evelyn Lear and her grandfather, Cantor Sawel Kwartin.

The sound quality on the CD-ROM is startlingly good. It probably helped that Mike Richter, Byrnes’ partner, is a former aerospace engineer. Based in Los Angeles, Richter worked from tapes provided by Byrnes, who did a lot of preliminary work with the original materials.

“I have special equipment to play them on,” he explained. “Many of those early recordings weren’t even recorded at the right speed. Every one of the records have been carefully pitched by me to make sure that the voice sounds proper, with equalization to eliminate surface noise. They’re cleaned up before they’re put on tape. Mike can clean them up further, being very careful not to do too much to the actual content.”

The result is as close to a mini-encyclopedia of great Jewish voices as you are likely to get any time soon.

Shortly after my interview with him in December, Harold Byrnes had a heart attack, the complications from which have left him with serious medical problems. However, his partner, Mike Richter, is carrying on in his absence. “Stars of David” sells for $25 and is available from Mike Richter at his web site: www.mindspring.com/~richter/index.html.

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