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Ofer BEN-AMOTS (b. 1955)
Hashkivenu – Song of the Angels (1994)
BBC Singers/Kenneth Kiesler, Christopher Bowers-Broadbent (organ)
Recorded at St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London, June 2001
Celestial Dialogues (1994)
Alberto Mizrahi – Cantor, David Krakauer - Clarinet
Barcelona Symphony Orchestra/Karl-Anton Rickenbacher
Recorded Sala Sinfonica dei Aurditori, Barcelona, June 2001
Shtetl Songs (1985-6)
Soprano - Re’ut Ben-Ze’ev, Piano – John Musto
Recorded at the Lefrak Concert Hall/Colden Arts Centre, Flushing, NY, December 2001
Psalm 81 (1989)
Permonik Children’s Choir, Radka Petraskova, soloist with percussion played by Petr Hladik and Rostislav Mikelka/Eva Seinerova
Recorded in Karvina, Czech Republic, 1998
NAXOS 8.559421 [71.41]


This CD comes in Naxos’s American Classics series although with all due respect to everyone concerned this music sounds to my ears not at all American and as yet the music is far from Classic, but, never mind.

This disc along with others in the series form part of the Milken Archive of America-Jewish music. Other composers represented include Samuel Adler (Symphony No. 5 on 8.559415 review) and Leonard Bernstein (A Jewish Legacy on 8.550407). Lowell Milken himself explains the background to the series in a page one comment as does the Artistic Director Neil Leven.

The twenty-four page CD booklet is superbly presented. There is an essay on the composer and then detailed notes about the background of each of the four works. These are not musically theoretical and high-brow. English text translations are given as well as the Hebrew and Yiddish originals. This is very useful, but they are on separate pages as opposed to next to each other which is the more common and useful practice. Then there are extensive notes on the performers and credits in which we are told that the Michael Milken set up the foundation "with a mission to discover and advance inventive, effective ways of helping people help themselves and those around them to lead productive and satisfying lives",. The Foundation therefore funds medical research and education. These are very laudable objects. For music-lovers this series offers us an incredible opportunity of getting to grips with rarely heard and little known music.

But what of Ofer Ben-Amots?

He was born in Haifa and for a while studied with the great Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera in Geneva. In 1987 he emigrated to the USA. His music has been performed all over the world and other works have been recorded internationally. In 1994 he won the Competition for Composers in Vienna with his opera ‘Fool’s Paradise’.

So what of these four works?

The most ‘Jewish’ of these works is the main piece: ‘Celestial Dialogues’; a difficult work to describe. It is scored for cantor, which here is the versatile and stylistically precise Alberto Mizrahi and clarinet with the superb David Krakauer. The orchestra have a gentle and mainly accompanying role. The piece falls into six sections in which the third and fifth are instrumental only. It is a totally spiritual work which includes texts about the Sabbath and a wedding and beguilingly mixes the sound of the klezmer clarinet with the cantor and with the light orchestra. It plays for about 25 minutes.

The CD opens with our own BBC Singers in a totally magical piece ‘Song of the Angels’. Having heard this I could not wait to hear the other works. The choral writing, especially for the women is delicious, the ululations, if I may call them that, are mixed with the sound of the vibraphone (performer uncredited here) and is unforgettable. The text, sung in Hebrew is a prayer for peace. It uses a traditional tune that the composer heard in Geneva.

‘Shtetl’ Songs is a song-cycle or to be precise part of a song-cycle, six of the nine pieces are recorded here - why not the complete work? It is sung in the Yiddish tongue. The composer describes it as his "first ‘American work’ and goes on to say that it is a "musical tour of the enclosed Jewish neighbourhood or small town in eastern Europe during the 19th century"… portraying "the daily life of those inhabitants". The charm of the work, which lasts for almost twenty minutes, lies in its use of simple folk melodies or of melodies derived from them. These include ‘Royz, Royz’ based on a Hungarian Shepherd’s love song. Re‘ut Ben-Ze’ev has an ideal voice for this music: simple yet coy and yet also worldly-wise all at once.

Finally to the thirteen minute setting of Psalm 81. The Czech children’s choir are absolutely superb in what is quite rhythmically challenging music. In a sense this is the exact antithesis of ‘Song of the Angels’. I felt myself wishing that Ben-Amots had gone down this particular road in the earlier works. The melodies are very ’Jewish’ and the percussion, bells, timps, glockenspiel, tambourine, woodblocks - all add to the general excitement. A middle section adds a legato line with little rhythmic interjections often in four- or five-part chord clusters. For me this piece is the highlight of this fine and fascinating disc.

At the end of listening to this CD a few times I feel delighted to have made the acquaintance of Ofer Ben-Amots and can only suggest that you might feel the same way.

Gary Higginson

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