Helfman was born in Radzyn, Poland.
In 1909 he and his family emigrated
to America. Helfman took up various
organist and choirmaster positions in
New Jersey and Manhattan until in 1929
he went to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
There he studied composition with Rosario
Scalero and conducting with Fritz Reiner.
Until his move to the American west
coast in 1954 he was engaged with the
music of religion and of social commentary.
His move westwards came with his appointment
as director of the newly-founded College
of Jewish studies in Los Angeles. He
also held a similar position in the
city’s Sinai Temple, one of the country’s
largest synagogues. In 1958 he headed
University of Judaism in the city. His
casual attitude to his compositions
resulted over the years in their being
scattered to the four winds. It is only
now, and gradually, that his scores
are being collected and catalogued.
There is still much to be done.
The documentation of
the whole Naxos Milken series is sovereign.
One doggedly repeated blemish is the
failure to print the sung Yiddish text
with side by side translation. All you
get in the booklet is the English. You
can go to the Milken Archive website
and find the Yiddish and English although
when I tried this for the Helfman it
was not there ... or at least not yet.
The choral tone poem
Di Naye hagode (The
New Narrative) is here recorded
in 23 separately tracked episodes spanning
just short of three quarters of an hour.
Rather like the collective composition
the Genesis Suite recorded on
Naxos Milken 8.559442 (review)
, this is a work for orator, chorus
and orchestra. Helfman wrote it inspired
by the memory of the sacrifice of the
Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto following
the 1943 uprising against the Nazis.
It was written only five years after
those events. Its text is from the Yiddish
epic poem Di shotns fun varshever
geto (The Shadows of the Warsaw
Ghetto) by Itsik Fefer (1900-1952).
Fefer was a Ukrainian-born communist
Jew who was shot by the NKVD in Lubyanka
on the avowed grounds of Jewish nationalism
and spying for America. Fefer numbered
Paul Robeson among his friends.
The music of the choral
tone poem is vivid and filmic - a touch
of Waxman about it and even a hint of
Rozsa but without the Hungarian ‘twist’.
The tone is sweetly illustrative - melodramatic,
a little posterish and instantly accessible.
There is no Berg or Schoenberg in this
music. On the contrary movements such
as Riboyne-sheloylem (tr. 4)
embrace sentimental Broadway; can that
be a touch of South Pacific in
the vocalise La - la - la - la - laaaah
and again in Di Fon (tr. 16).
A Linder April echoes with the
recollection of birdsong (tr. 6). The
brutality of the SS suppression is portrayed
in the blasting and hammering of Di
Shlakht (tr. 11) where the choral
singing emulating catastrophe and carnage
recalls similar prescient choral episodes
in Tippett’s pre-war A Child Of Our
Time. As a counterbalance to the
violence there are far more movements
where the singing is carefree and spring-like
as in the sweetly elevated female singing
in Zey Zaynen Gekumen (tr. 12).
In trs. 13 and 14 the enchanting lilt
of street dances contrasts with the
image of the teenage partisan whose
worldly goods are reduced to two hand
grenades, a gun and a flag. As the narrator
says - it was not very long ago that
his thoughts were about playing in the
Warsaw streets. The finale is Aza
Der Gebot Iz in which spirituality
and celebration meet in apotheosis and
in the sort of exuberant singing found
in Roy Harris’s Folksong Symphony;
the latter soon out on Naxos with Marin
Alsop conducting the Colorado Symphony.
is again in a series of short
episodes. The music here is almost unrelievedly
joyous, perfumed, dancing with delicate
delight. The two outer movements are
characterised by a determined teeth-gritted
trudging march. As with the choral tone
poem the singing is largely unison but
is beautifully judged. The excerpts
from the Torah Service give
us an insight into an even grander liturgical
work - that feels like an oratorio.
It is extremely impressive and in the
first movement the simultaneous juxtaposing
of quiet high vocal strata and the rumblingly
deep bass is memorable. This is a work
of reverence and exaltation.
Another stride forward
in documenting American Jewish music.
While no original, Helfman’s sincere
embrace of colourful melodic music is
well worth hearing for its vivid and
instantly captivating ways. Do not however
look for great subtlety.