> OSBORNE Souls on Fire [AAS]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Souls on Fire

Catherine Thorpe (soprano), Fredda Rakusin Mendelson (mezzo), Roger Ohlson (tenor), Wesley Garrison (bass) with the Bulgarian National Symphony and Chorus conducted by Joshua R Jacobson
Leonard Nimoy (storyteller), Barbara Grossman and Charles D Osborne (narrators)
Music recorded at the Salle Bulgaria, Sofia (February 1999); narrative recorded at National Sound, New York (March 1999)
ZC MUSIC GROUP (no reference number)

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Charles D Osborne is a prominent Hasidic Jew in the USA and his Souls on Fire is an oratorio first performed in 1998. An unusual feature of the piece is its extensive narrative passages: the libretto (by Aryeh Finklestein) is based on a collection of Hasidic legends published in 1972 by Elie Wiesel. After various wanderings Wiesel, born in Romania in 1928 and who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust at first hand, ultimately settled in the USA, where he became a citizen in 1963: his writings on the themes of violence and oppression were eventually to lead to his being awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for Peace.

For the benefit of other gentiles like myself who know virtually nothing of Hasidism a definition may be helpful: according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica it is ‘a pietistic movement within Judaism that began in the 18th century in south-eastern Poland’ and ‘was a reaction against an orthodox religious system that had, many felt, become rigidly legalistic and in which the spiritual yearnings of the common people were lost. Rather than emphasize Talmudic learning, Hasidism made an appeal to emotionalism and anti-intellectualism.’ It ‘persists today in small but vigorous groups, especially in the United States and Israel’ (ibid). The cult has given rise to many legends. see also

Given the work’s specialist appeal, normal reviewing criteria scarcely apply. The disc is obviously a labour of love on the part of all those involved, their blazing commitment evident throughout its prologue, seven movements and epilogue. But though Osborne is a skilful craftsman his musical language is unremarkably conservative. Performance and recording attain respectable levels, though I can’t say that I warmed to the excessive vibrato of the mezzo and tenor soloists.

Perhaps this is a disc strictly for the faithful: its otherwise comprehensive programme-booklet offers no insight into the nature of Hasidism (nor even a synopsis of the Hasidic legends). One curiosity, though: I learn that the Storyteller (Leonard Nimov) is apparently well-known, inter alios, as Mr Spock of Star Trek. [for Adrian's edification]

Adrian Smith

footnote June 2012
Your review of Souls on Fire incorrectly states that the composer, Charles Osborne, is a prominent Hasidic Jew. Osborne is a cantor at a Conservative congregation and trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary which is part of the Conservative movement of Judaism. This is a far cry from Hasidism. The legends on which Elie Weisel’s work is based are Hasidic but Osborne is no Hasid.

Shirley Ranz

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