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
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
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
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.