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.
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
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.