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Jewish Tone Poems
Aaron AVSHALOMOV (1894-1964)

Four Biblical Tableaux (1928) [12.08]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
recorded Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin, May 1999
Sheila SILVER (b.1946)

Shirat Sara (1985) [22.32]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
recorded Benaroya Hall, Seattle, May 1999
Jan MEYEROWITZ (1915-1998)

Symphony - Midrash Esther (1954) [28.26]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi
recorded Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin, November 2000
NAXOS MILKEN ARCHIVE 8.559426 [63.19]

This is one of the first of the Milken Archive series of discs of American Jewish music I’ve encountered. It collates a trio of composers whose aesthetic is very different and whose histories represent different sides of Jewish American experience.

Aaron Avshalomov was born in what is now eastern Siberia in 1894 and his story was marked by travel – first to study medicine in Zurich, then to America and then back to China, through which he’d earlier passed en route for San Francisco. Librarian and conductor in Shanghai he was imprisoned during the Japanese occupation; he only settled permanently in the United States after the War, spending the last nineteen or so years of his life there. His Second Symphony was commissioned by Koussevitzky but he failed to make much mark on the populous American musical scene.

His Four Biblical Tableaux date from 1928 and occupy an axis roughly adjacent to Rimsky-Korsakov meets Bloch. The music is explicitly Hebraic though his interest in Chinese music makes itself manifest in the second movement, Rebecca by the Well in the shape of airy winds and percussion. Evocative wind and string textured the third tableaux impresses through its detail and warmth - though the Processional finale rather takes the easy way out with its deliberately antique sonorities. Still, this is both competently crafted and sympathetically warm.

Sheila Silver was born in 1946 and is by a generation the youngest of the trio of composers. Silver studied at the University of California at Berkeley in 1968 and has studied with Harold Shapero, an admirable musician and composer, as well as Arthur Berger and Seymour Shifrin. She currently teaches, and composes for a wide variety of media. Shirat Sara was conceived whilst she was living in Jerusalem but composed back in America in 1984. It’s a three-movement tone poem on a Biblical theme – Abraham’s wife Sarah’s frustration at her inability to conceive, and the subsequent birth of her son Isaac in her old age. Basically tonal and with great swathes of colour and rhythmic bite there is plenty to detain the ear - see-sawy strings, a mysterioso element, and dark lower strings that play against the higher ones. The finale is the most clearly Hebraic but also the most musically challenging – ending in spare, quizzical lines followed by final, resolutory chords. The element of unease and tension, of things questioned and then, seemingly, resolved is a narrative thread that runs through the tone poem. A rewarding work - but one that sticks to its modernist guns.

Jan Meyerowitz was born in 1915 and died a couple of years before his Symphony Midrash Esther was recorded, though it was written in 1954. He was born in what was then Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland) in 1915 into what he believed was a Christian family. He learnt the truth at eighteen. By 1927 he was in Berlin studying with Zemlinsky and later with Respighi and Casella in Rome. He emigrated to America in 1946 where he pursued a successful career, writing widely (including a number of operas). Midrash Esther is another tone poem that takes the Book of Esther and the time of tribulation at the hands of the Persian Empire. There are four movements and the first, by some way the shortest, is a slow movement full of powerful tread and prophetic foreboding. The second is suffused with fraught, baleful brass, uneasy sinuous winds, and a pretty much unrelenting sense of tension and unease, which the third movement, an adagio-cantabilissimo (!) tries to disperse. The finale is a vibrant, lusty celebration with an extensive role for solo violin, brass and percussion – in fact the whole orchestra responds with colour and felicity, and though the themes themselves are not especially distinguished they certainly generate a real drama.

With the expectedly fine profusion of notes and supporting information this can safely be recommended to inquisitive listeners. There’s a great deal of variety, geographic, aesthetic, temporal – and some splendid performances to boot.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Colin Clarke



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