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Max HELFMAN (1901-1963)
Di Naye Hagode (The New Haggada) (A Choral Tone Poem of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) (1948) [42:17]
Theodore Bikel (narrator)
Choral Society of Southern California
Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale
Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra/Nick Strimple
Hag Habikkurim (Festival of First Fruits - A Pageant for Shavuot) (1947) [17:30]
Coro Hebraeico/Neil Levin
The Holy Ark (Torah Service), excerpts (1950) [12:16]
Cantor Raphael Frieder
Slovak Chamber Choir
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Samuel Adler
rec. Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, June 2000; St Paul’s School, Hammersmith, London, July 2001; Slovak Radio Hall, Bratislava, Slovak Republic, June 1998. DDD

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.

Hag Habikkurim 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.

Rob Barnett




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