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Ofer BEN-AMOTS (b. 1955)
Hashkivenu – Song of the Angels (1994)a [9:53]
Celestial Dialogues (1994)b [28:49]
Shtetl Songs (1985/6)c [18:54]
Psalm 81 (1989)d [13:37]
BBC Singers, Christopher Bowers-Broadbent (organ), Kenneth Kiesler (conductor)a; Alberto Mizrahi (cantor), David Krakauer (clarinet), Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, Karl Anton Rickenbacher (conductor)b; Re’ut Ben-Ze’ev (soprano), John Musto (piano)c; Permonik Children’s Choir, Petr Hladik, Rostislav Mikeśka (percussion), Eva Šeinerová (conductor)d
rec. St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London, June 2001 (Hashkivenu); Sala Sinfonica del Auditori, Barcelona, June 2001 (Celestial Dialogues); Lefrak Concert Hall/ Colden Center for the Arts, Flushing, NY, December 2001 (Shtetl Songs) and Karvina, Czech Republic, 1998 (Psalm 81)
NAXOS MILKEN SERIES 8.559421 [71:41]



Ofer Ben-Amots was born in Haifa, and studied composition at Tel Aviv University. Later he studied in Geneva with Pierre Wissmer and Alberto Ginastera, further still in Detmold and finally with George Crumb and Richard Wernick at the University of Pennsylvania.

The pieces recorded here span some fifteen years of his composing life. The Shtetl Songs is the first piece that the composer wrote after having settled in the States. This song-cycle on various texts by poets writing in Yiddish depicts life in the East European Jewish communities. The songs are in turn serious and humorous, sometimes slightly ironic. They make for a hugely varied effect and are set in a straightforward, though very effective manner. The full cycle comprises nine songs, of which only six are recorded here. There also exists a version for mixed chorus.

Psalm 81 for treble voices and percussion is a lively setting full of dance-like, foot-stamping rhythms that perfectly suit the celebratory character of Psalm 81. It is more or less the same in approach as Steve Reich’s Tehilim, although Ben-Amots’ music is neither minimalist nor repetitive. It rather brings Britten, Kodály and Bartók to mind, when these composers wrote for treble voices. This is a very attractive, outdoor setting of great rhythmic verve, although it may be just a bit too long for some tastes. It is one of the most enjoyable pieces in this release.

Hashkivenu – Song of the Angels is a recent piece. It is apparently based on a tune sung to the liturgical text hashkivenu that the composer heard in a synagogue in Geneva. He used it in his Hashkivenu Variations (1980) for string quartet and, later still, in short choral movements in his opera Fool’s Paradise (1993). The setting – or version – heard here is seemingly a later reworking of these choral movements from the opera, and includes some new, original material to the tune heard in Geneva some twenty years earlier. The scoring is for mixed chorus, some percussion and organ. Both organ and percussion are used quite discreetly, though effectively, adding colour to the melismatic vocal writing. The work has an appropriately ethereal character.

Celestial Dialogues is a hybrid work, “a stylistic confrontation” (the composer’s words) between a klezmer clarinet solo and cantorial vocal passages. The piece is considerably varied, alternating settings of religious texts with popular, folk-like instrumental material, the latter often reminiscent of the village scenes evoked in the Shtetl Songs. The scoring is for cantor, clarinet and small orchestra - actually strings and percussion.

These performances, recorded in different venues, are fine; the recording likewise. This further instalment from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music sheds interesting light on the output of a younger composer whose well-made and deeply sincere music was new to me.

Hubert Culot

see also Review by Gary Higginson






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