Perhaps because it is the liturgical music with which I am most familiar, perhaps the emotions of the occasion are always so heightened. But for whatever reason, I believe there is no music in the Jewish tradition more powerful than the various versions of the High Holy Days service, whatever its provenance. Composers as various as Ernest Bloch and Max Bruch have been drawn to this music and for a cantor it is undoubtedly the crown of the year. Below are six new recordings that speak directly to tradition and a seventh which comments on it obliquely but passionately.
Shalom Berlinski: “The Voice of Fervor”
Berlinski was the cantor at the Synagogue de la Victoire in Paris for 31 years. He represents a school of Ashkenazi cantorial singing that one seldom hears anymore, a full-throated, nearly operatic brand of liturgical singing that is pretty much relegated to the concert hall today. This two-CD set was recorded in 1972 and offers an excellent selection of traditional synagogue tunes and showpieces. I found Berlinski’s reading of the Ravel “Kaddish,” particularly moving, the orchestra and choir are excellent throughout and the remastering of the original recordings is impeccable. Available from Hatikvah Music (www.hatikvahmusic.com or  655-7083).
Rating: 4 stars
Paul Marleyn and John Lenehan: “From Jewish Life”
A very capable piano-cello duo, performing a range of material both apt and slight. When they’re grappling with the hard stuff — notably the Bruch “Kol Nidre” and Bloch’s Sonata for violincello and piano and his “Meditation ebraique” — they are on solid ground, sober-minded and workmanlike. The encore pieces like “Dona, Dona” are just silly filler.
Rating: 32 stars.
Cantor Benzion Miller: “The First S’likhot”
This is probably the single most ambitious production of the Milken Archive series to date, a two-CD set encompassing an entire Selichot service drawn from the writings of a veritable cantorial hall of fame. Miller sings recitatives and prayer settings from Koussevitsky, Rosenblatt and Rumshinsky, among others, with terrific support from Schola Hebraica, conducted by Neil Levin. Miller’ s top is a bit harsh, and this does have its longueurs, but it is, by and large, a triumph. The program is filled out with Miller’s interpretations of pieces of Pinchik, Secunda and a powerful Koussevitsky version of “Un’Tane Tokef.”
Rating: 5 stars.
The Spirit of the High Holy Days
(Cantors Assembly/United Synagogue
of Conservative Judaism)
At the risk of sounding flippant, this is sort of a Conservative movement greatest hits CD. A bit uneven, this is on strongest ground when it sticks closest to traditional material, which it does for most of its 19 selections. Each of the three cuts with the Western Wind Ensemble is superb. David Lefkowitz and the Park Avenue Synagogue Choir perform admirably on “Kadosh Atah,” Abraham Lubin’s rendering of “V’al Y’dei Avadekha” is quite moving. Cory Winter performs Max Janowski’s setting of “Avinu Malkeinu” in such high style that it ranks with the Jan Peerce recording, a particular favorite of mine. On the downside, “’V’kareiv P’ zureinu” by Martin and Adam Goldstein is pure Vegas, and several cuts are marred by excessive synthesizer. A notable exception to the rule of traditional material here is “Rahamana” by Steven Stoehr and Chai 5, which is a delightful a cappella tight-harmony number. On the whole a rewarding set.
Rating: 42 stars.
(Congregation B’nai Jeshurun).
After an unpromising start — heavy organ chords leading to a rather lugubrious rendering of the High Holy Day melody — this turns into a really lovely recording. Low-key and sober, mostly original music written for the Upper West Side’s popular congregation, B’nai Jeshurun, splendidly performed by a phalanx of rabbis, Hazan Ari Priven and some excellent musicians (the most familiar name is Basya Schechter’s). Some nicely Middle Eastern modes and deliciously funky group percussion. Available from the synagogue’s Web site at www.bj.org.
Rating: 5 stars.
Hugo Weisgall: “T’Kiatot”
Weisgall is best known for his vocal music, both opera and song-cycles, and that material is well-represented on this CD by “Psalm of the Distant Dove,” Four Chorale Etudes, and “A Garden Eastward.” The title piece, however, is an instrumental suite evoking “rituals for Rosh Hashanah.” It’s a bit of a baggy monster, a high modernist amalgam of shofar calls, post-Romantic surging brass and harsh dissonance. It’s usually interesting but it doesn’t really hang together. The vocal pieces are much more satisfying, and beautifully rendered by Ana Maria Martinez, Phyllis Bryn-Julson and the BBC singers. The chorale etudes, sung by the BBC group are particularly lovely.
Rating: 4 stars.