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Cantorial Concert Masterpieces
David ROITMAN (1884 – 1943), orchestrated and arranged Larry SPIVACK Hayyom T’amtzeinu [5.14] (1)
Israel SCHORR (1886 – 1935) Sheyyibane Beit Hammikdash [9.01] (2)
Pierre PINCHIK (1893? – 1971) Der Khazn un der Gabe [5.08] (1)
Pinchas JASSINOWSKY (1886 – 1954) , orchestrated Robert ELHAI The Prophecy of Isaiah [8.01] (5)
David KUSEVITZKY (1911 – 1985), orchestrated Stanley SILVERMAN Ezrat [5.48] (1)
Israel SCHORR (1886 – 1935), orchestrated and arranged Elli JAFFE Ribbon Ha’olamim [12.43] (1)
Leib GLANTZ (1898 – 1964), orchestrated and arranged Larry SPIVACK Kol M’kaddesh [3.57] (1)
Moshe GANCHOFF (1907 – 1997), orchestrated and arranged Steve BARNETT Hashir Shehalviyyim [9.09] (1)
Zavel ZILBERTS (1881 – 1949), orchestrated and arranged Warner BASS Havdala [3.34] (3)
Aaron TISHKOWSKY (1899 – 1972), arranged Maurice GOLDMAN, orchestrated Larry SPIVACK Hammavdil [5.28] (4)
William BOGZESTER (1904 – 1970), orchestrated Steve BARNETT Psalm of David [9.34] (1)
Cantor Benzion Miller
(1, 5) Barcelona Symphony Orchestra(National Orchestra of Catalonia)/Elli Jaffe
(2) Oxford Philomusica/Marios Papadopoulos
(3) Barcelona Symphony Orchestra(National Orchestra of Catalonia)/Jorge Mester
(4) Vienna Boys Choir/Chorus Viennensis/Vienna Chamber Orchestra/Gerard Wirth
Recorded: (1, 3) Centre Cultural de Sant Cugat, Barcelona, May 2000
(2) The Warehouse, London, UK, November 1998
(5) Sala Sinfonical del Auditori, Barcelona, May 2001
(4) Baumgartner Casino, Vienna, Austria, May 2001
NAXOS 8.559416 [78.22]

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Mention the words ‘Jewish music’ to many people and the first (and possibly only) thing that popped into their heads would be Klezmer. Mention ‘Jewish Sacred music’ and you would probably get no further than the Bloch Sacred Service, Milhaud’s Jewish sacred music and Kurt Weill’s Kaddish. This disc, from the Naxos series based on the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, helps to extend our knowledge further. It is a selection of pieces, usually of a sacred nature, written for concert performance by Jewish cantors in the first half of the 20th century. To understand this repertoire, sacred music written for and performed in the concert hall, we must turn to history.

The role of hazzan or cantor in a Jewish service is to intone and sing the liturgy as sh’liah tzibbur (messenger of the congregation). In the Ashkenazi tradition in the Hapsburg and Russian Empires in the early 19th century this role became professionalized. The European Golden Age for the art of the cantor is generally thought to be period from the late 19th century up to the First World War. After the war, this art was brought to America by touring and émigré cantors. A curious side-effect of this touring was the development of the sacred concert, where the cantor would demonstrate his essentially sacred art in a secular concert hall. These concerts always augmented the cantor’s primary liturgical function, but away from the Synagogue the cantor was able to perform with instrumental accompaniment; something generally forbidden during services.

The use of orchestral accompaniment flourished particularly during the American period, the period represented by the pieces on this disc. All but one were written for their own use by virtuoso cantors and most would have relied upon a professional to provide the orchestrations. Some of these orchestrations do survive, but for this recording entirely new orchestrations were commissioned by the Milken Archive. The disc’s line notes do not explain whether these new orchestrations differ in style from the originals.

The cantor on this disc is Cantor Benzion Miller, evidently one of the few cantors who perform in the virtuoso tradition of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The performance style requires the cantor to provide elaborate flourishes, cadenzas and highly virtuoso coloratura passages. The concert atmosphere encouraged cantors to create pieces that were longer and far more elaborate than would be possible in a service; vocal elaboration and repetition of words is common to all the pieces on the disc.

The opening piece, Hayyom T’amtzeinu by David Roitman, comes as a bit of a shock; the orchestration is in the light music vein and if it were not for Miller’s elaborate vocal flights, the piece could be a piece of Jewish musical theatre.

The following piece, Sheyyibane Beit Hammikdash, is more sober. The version performed here is illustrative of another aspect of the cantorial tradition; pieces were changed and added to by subsequent performers, the one performed here is based on the version popularised by cantor Moshe Koussevtizky.

Most of the music on the disc is strongly indebted to the romantic classical tradition. Pierre Pinchik’s Der Hazn un der Gabe and Pinchas Jassinowsky’s The Prophecy of Isaiah illustrate this. Both have big romantic ballad-like moments. Pinchik’s piece is a Yiddish song, about a Cantor and though narrative in form, includes many traditional flourishes. This is the only Yiddish piece on the disc; all the remainder are Hebrew settings. Aaron Tishkowsky’s Hammavdil is an expansive choral arrangement, by Maurice Goldman, of a sacred piece; it features the Vienna Boys Choir.

Cantor Benzion Miller has a remarkable technical facility, executing some truly spectacular vocal fireworks. He has a robust tenor voice, which has a tendency to sound a bit steely in the upper register and develops a strong vibrato under pressure. But of course, one does not listen to Miller for just his vocal quality but for the brilliant stylistic and virtuoso elements that he brings to this music.

On most of the tracks he is ably accompanied by the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra under Elli Jaffe, though the Oxford Philomusica and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra ably stand in for them on two tracks. Jaffe also did some of the orchestral arrangements. All the orchestrations are richly colourful, employing a wide romantic palette. At times I thought that they might have been a little too elaborate for the good of the music and Cantor Benzion Miller’s art.

The booklet includes an extensive essay on the music with copious notes about each of the composers and their background, providing an illuminating window into the genre. Listening to the entire disc at one sitting is probably not recommended for those new to this genre. Miller’s voice, expressive though it is, can become a little wearing with repeated exposure. But undoubtedly this disc makes fascinating listening, opening up an area of musical repertoire which is probably quite unknown to many people.

Robert Hugill

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