Lukas Foss: Elegy for Anne Frank (Naxos 8.559438) The title work and four other Foss pieces share this disc with one Seattle Symphony performance, conducted by Gerard Schwarz, a work called “The Heavenly Feast,” by Robert Beaser.
Soprano Constance Hauman solos in Beaser’s setting of a text by the American poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg, an extended meditation over the grave of Simone Weil. Notes to the CD tell the troubling mid-World War II story of Weil, a French Jew, who starved herself to death, insisting that her food should go to the French Resistance fighters. Ecstatic visionary? Anorexia victim? The story is arresting; the music matches it.
Maestro Schwarz also conducts the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in Lukas Foss’ “Song of Anguish” on this CD, the world premiere recording of this work. It’s muscular music, featuring the drama and tenderness of baritone James Maddalena (whom Schwarz featured at Benaroya Hall in a Handel oratorio last December). He’s well-suited to these texts from Isaiah, in English translation. This is a voice that manages to sound plaintive even in the angriest passages.
The same orchestra, led by Christopher Wilkins, accompanies pianist Kevin McCutcheon in Foss’ tender “Elegy for Anne Frank.”
Aficionados of very early (or very recent) music: note Foss’ “Lammedeni” for percussion ensemble and chorus. A fruit of the composer’s 1970s work in Israel, it’s based on the oldest-known (about 12th-century) musically notated Hebrew manuscripts.
Charles Davidson (Naxos 8. 559436) This eclectic American composer must have been listening to a lot of Orff when he created “A Singing of Angels” for children’s chorus and percussion: the bouncy parts of Orff’s “Carmina Burana” might as well be looking in the mirror.
Irony: while Carl Orff’s most enduring legacy may be his invention of the early-childhood music education techniques called “Kindermusik,” Orff longed to serve the Third Reich as its official composer. So perhaps Davidson’s bald borrowing salvages the good Orff and leave the rest in the dust of Terezin. After all, Davidson is the composer who gave us a song cycle to “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”
“Angels” is a cycle of nine Yiddish folksongs in English translation.
Davidson’s suite “ÖAnd David Danced Before the Lord” surprises liturgical Sabbath texts with mellow jazz attitudes: the combo includes piano, bass, drums, sax and a vibraphone to accompany two very good singers and a small choral ensemble.
Four movements from Davidson’s “Baroque Suite” are included on this CD too. One thing you can say about Davidson: he knows how to cover a lot of stylistic territory. And the disc provides committed, skilled performances all around.
Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn: Great Songs of the Yiddish Stage, Vol. 2 (Naxos 8.559432) Schmaltz, yes, and history too! A generous serving of both, starting with the title track. In the history of American popular music, a whole chapter belongs to this song, and you can both hear and read why with this CD. Tender and funny, this is the quintessential American crossover hit, in its original form, given a spirited performance by tenor Simon Spiro.
The eye-opening notes trace the evolution of this classic from the 1932 New York Yiddish stage, to the ASCAP award for most popular song of 1938, to the inadvertent adoration of Hitler-drunk German radio audiences, who seem to have mistaken the Yiddish for a southern German dialect.
From sleazy to classy, these Yiddish songs tell stories a lot of the bubbes and zaides probably didn’t tell in shul. The centerpiece of the disc features the virtuoso cantorial concert soloist Benzion Miller. His ten-minute rendition of Sholom Secunda’s tour de force, “Dos Yidishe Lid” includes a Kol Nidre quotation that’ll make your fringes wiggle.
Traditional Cantorial and Concert Favorites (Naxos 8.559460) You can hear the gold in the British tenor Simon Spiro’s golden cantorial pedigree. Like an antique tucked into velvet, Spiro’s arrangement of “Eitz Chayim Hee” nestles these familiar words on an exquisitely gentle cushion of a choir.
As a singer, his is the art of caressing a single phrase over and over; as an arranger, he asks for a nimble choir capable of both drama and support. The Milken recording gives him both.
Seattle natives will want to know that the famous tune to “Shalom Aleichem” is here attributed to the New York-based cantor and composer Israel Goldfarb. This, despite the many opinions in this town contending that this ubiquitous melody was composed by Israel’s well-traveled brother, Samuel Goldfarb, beloved by several generations as the music director at Temple De Hirsch. Whoever wrote it, it’s certainly a classic, and it’s performed beautifully here.
Incidentally, if you’re planning a wedding, imagine your Sheva B’rachot, the traditional seven wedding blessings, performed by a cantor and choir like this! Or maybe not. You’d be upstaged for sure.
Gershon Kingsley (Naxos 8.559435) With the recent observances of Yom HaShoah, and the worldwide commemorations of Allied victory after the destruction of the Jews of Europe, the angry, spare music that opens this CD makes an especially appropriate statement. “Voices from the Shadow” (subtitled “Poetry of the Holocaust”), conducted by the composer, is a cycle of 18 songs on poems written by inmates and survivors of concentration camps. A chamber ensemble—string quartet, clarinet, piano—and four singers bring these poems to life.
Kingsley, ne Ksinski, trained as a Zionist pioneer as a youth in Hamburg; after Kristallnacht, he left for Palestine, where, in addition to his kibbutz work, he played in a jazz band in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Kingsley was one of the many European Jewish refugee musicians who eventually made a home in Los Angeles, where he became a pioneer of jazz in the synagogue.
“Jazz Psalms” on this CD is not a set of King David’s words at all, but two prayers from the Sabbath liturgy, featuring the engaging soprano Lisa Vroman. Kingsley’s passion for jazz is well represented on this disc, as is another mark of his pioneering spirit: his decades-old fascination with the Moog synthesizer.