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S’lihot for the First Day – The Entire Midnight Service According to Orthodox and Traditional Ritual
Leib GLANTZ (1898–1964) Ashrei (1)
Moshe KOUSSEVITZKY (1899–1966) Einei khol (1)
Joshua LIND (1890–1973) Va’ahahnu (1)
Todrosh GREENBERG (1846–1927), Abrham KALECHNIK (1846–1927) Hatzi kaddish (1)
Isaac KAMINSKY (1871–1943) L’khu n’rann’na (1)
Israel SCHORR (1886–1935) Hattei (1)
Zavel ZILBERTS (1881–1949) El melekh yoshev (1)
Arnold MILLER (1922–1997), Isaac KAMINSKY (1871–1943), Joshua LIND (1890–1973), Herman ZALIS (1885–1969), Ira BIGELEISEN (contemporary), Meyer MACHTENBERG (1884–1979) B’motza’ei m’nuha (1)
Joshua LIND (1890–1973) T’vi’enu (1)
Joshua RUMSHINSKY (1881-1956) Sh’ma kolenu (1)
Mozhe KOUSSEVITZKY(1899-1966) arr. Neil LEVIN Ashamnu (1)
Joshua LIND (1890–1973) Rahamana (1)
Dan FROHMAN (1903-1977) Maran d’vishmayya (1)
Yossele ROSENBLATT (1882–1933) arr. R. GOLDSTEIN Shomer yisra’el (1)
Jacob GOTTLIEB (Yankl der HEIZERIKER) (1852-1900) Kaddish Shalem (1)
Pierre PINCHIK (Pinchas SEGAL) Mar’eh kohen (2)
Sholom SECUNDA Yir’u eineinu (2)
Meyer MACHTENBERG R’tze (2)
Moshe KOUSSEVITZKY (1899–1966) Untanne tokef (2)
Cantor Benzion Miller
Cantor Ira Bigeleisen
Schola Hebraica/Neil Levin (1)
London Synagogue Singers/Neil Levin (2)
Recorded: New West End Synagogue, London, July 2000, July 2001 (1); New West End Synagogue, London, November 1998 (2)
NAXOS 8.559428-29 [65.48 + 51.02]

The extensive CD booklet for this two disc set opens with the following information: In the Ashkenazi rite, the formal First S’lihot service takes place at midnight on the Saturday prior to Rosh Hashana. There are twelve closely printed pages of information about the music on the disc and if you continue reading you eventually find out that Ashkenazi refers to the Eastern European Jewish tradition and that S’lihot refers to an order of service consisting primarily of poetic texts whose central theme concerns supplication for forgiveness from sin and transgression.

Like this opening, the remainder of the CD booklet and the discs themselves only yield up their secrets gradually. The discs record a complete First S’lihot service as it might be conducted and heard in American orthodox synagogues whose orientation derives from eastern European tradition. The cantor, Benzion Miller, is an American whose family comes from an orthodox Polish tradition; Miller continues to perform (if that is the correct word) in the tradition of the virtuoso styles of the early 19th and 20th century Eastern European cantors. Many of the Eastern European cantors were composers as well, writing their own material and transmitting it orally to pupils. This is a tradition, which until quite recently, was mainly oral, with a heavy admixture of improvisation.

This emphasis on a virtuoso, improvisatory cantor means that this sung service differs significantly, in its musical values, to the traditional sung Christian service in the Roman Catholic tradition. Here the chorus’s role is mainly to support the cantor; it rarely sings music in its own right. This role is reflected in the fact that the cantor composers frequently did not write the choral parts, relying on arrangers to craft suitable choral accompaniments - this results in choral singing which is heavily late-romantic, varying in style from Rachmaninov’s Vespers to barbershop quartet, with Welsh Male Voice choir never far away.

It would be easy to be dismissive about this, but that is to forget the role of the choir in this liturgy, to support Cantor Benzion Miller. And Miller’s contribution to this disc is nothing short of astounding. Not everyone will warm to the tone of his voice, it is very throaty and nasal, longer notes in his upper register are heavily prone to a disturbing vibrator; but his virtuosity in the elaborate ornamentation is remarkable. Miller’s declamation preserves something which goes far beyond the Romanticism of the choral accompaniment to far earlier times. In fact the distinctive, eastern Mediterranean cast of the vocal part links up with recent experiments in early Christian chant.

The music used on the disc is very much a patchwork. Some composers seem to have written complete S’lihot services but here not only are different pieces by different hands, but some sections such as B’motza’ei m’nuha have different stanzas by different composers

The set concludes with three more liturgical pieces from other parts of the Jewish year. Chosen, I think, as cantorial showpieces these are, if anything, more astonishing than the complete S’lihot service.

The CD booklet comes with an essay which covers the background to the Liturgy, an extensive examination of the Liturgy with information on the composers of the various pieces, a translation of the text (in English only, there is not transliteration of the Hebrew) and an essay on the religious meaning of s’lihot entitled ‘Does God Pray’.

Cantor Benzion Miller is well supported by the New York-based male voice Schola Hebraica under their conductor Neil Levin. They are the world’s only fully professional male-voice chorus devoted to Jewish and Judaically related music. The recordings were made in London’s New West End Synagogue, one of London’s oldest orthodox Ashkenazi synagogues.

These are not discs to be listened to lightly and it is probably not a set which will come down from the library shelves with any frequency. I would imagine it will be welcomed by anyone with a Jewish background, but I would urge anyone with an interest in religion and religious history to listen.

Robert Hugill

 

 



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