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Kurt WEILL (1900-1950) Berliner Requiem (1928) [21:39];
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951) A Survivor from Warsaw for narrator, male choir and orchestra, Op. 46 (1947) [7:41];
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990) Symphony No. 3 Kaddish (1963, rev. 1977) [42:39]
Samuel Pisar (narrator) (Bernstein); Noam Sherrif (narrator) (Schoenberg); Abbie Furmansky (soprano); Jan Remmers (tenor); Christain Immler (baritone);
Rundfunkchoir-Berlin; Voices of the Staatschor and of the Domchor, Berlin
Luzerner Sinfonieorchester (LSO)/John Axelrod
rec. 29 August 2006, KKL Luzern Konsertsaal
NIMBUS NI 5807 [75:15]

Experience Classicsonline



This is a powerful and moving disc. Three different Jewish composers write works commemorating the dead, within the context of significant historical events of the 20th century. Their sound-worlds are very different from each other, but all convey a message of the ascendancy of hope over suffering, albeit with ambiguity rather than triumphalism.

The first, both chronologically in its composition and to be heard on this recording, is Kurt Weill's "Das Berliner Requiem", reconstructed by David Drew. Unlike the other two works, it commemorates the dead of the Great War rather than the Second World War. It opens and closes with the "Grosser Dankchoral" (Great Hymn of Thanksgiving), which encloses the Ballad of the Drowned Girl (Rosa Luxemburg) and the Ballad of the Unknown Soldier. It sets text by Bertold Brecht, and the sound is typical Weill. Whilst Bernstein's symphony recalls the theatre, this piece recalls the musical hall. The work was revised several times before its premiere, on 22 May 1929, and no authoritative version has existed. The British musicologist David Drew, who has contributed some helpful notes, completed a new edition of it in 1967, which is premiered here.

Arnold Schoenberg is succinct in his Op. 46 (1947), "A Survivor from Warsaw". The work is in two sections. The first describes morning roll-call in the Warsaw ghetto - the music becoming faster, more intense and more violent as the tension rises in the scene it describes. Then suddenly the inmates - represented by a male choir - burst into a melodic chant of the "Shema Israel" (a central Jewish prayer, equivalent in some ways to the recitation of a creed) in a gesture of solidarity, resistance and hope. Schoenberg's music is sometimes considered lacking in accessibility, but here it is simple and direct. The conductor René Leibowitz, who prepared the clean copy of the score, says, "people have written tomes, lengthy essays, numerous articles on this subject - Schoenberg has expressed more in eight minutes than any other person so far". It is hard either to disagree with the statement or to add anything further. It is inevitably hard to follow this piece.

However, Leonard Bernstein's Third ('Kaddish') Symphony - which does follow - is also a very powerful work made in response to the Holocaust. It also sets a traditional Jewish prayer 'The Kaddish' - a prayer of mourners. It is interspersed, in this third version, with moving and profound text by the composer's close friend Samuel Pisar, himself both a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp and a distinguished international lawyer. The result is one of the most eloquent responses to the theological problem of suffering; whilst historically specific in commemorating the tremendous loss and suffering of that time, it is also universal and contemporary. The speaker challenges God, his accusations - coupled with Bernstein's theatrical score involving dialogue between choir narrator, soloist and orchestra - creating the atmosphere of a day of judgement in reverse, with the Almighty being found wanting yet being reprieved.

This recording of the Third Symphony is the European premiere of its third version, its world premiere having been given in 2003 in Chicago. The performance by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra under its chief conductor John Axelrod is generous enough to bring out the dramatic tension of Bernstein's work, but within some control and restraint. Samuel Pisar narrates his own text, both his voice and his words being a pleasure for the listener. Noam Sheriff narrates in the Schoenberg and is also excellent.

The question arises as to whether this recording is the preferred version of this Symphony. It is the most recent, and has high quality sound with SACD enhancement. The only other comparable recording is the BBC's 2004 version (coupled with Bernstein's 'Chichester Psalms'). Of the two I prefer the Lucerne. There are some good older recordings: Bernstein conducting his own work, with the New York Philharmonic (1998; ADD); the Israel Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon (part of an excellent value boxed set), and a Radio France recording with the added attraction of Yehudi Menuhin. If you already own one or more of these, it is relatively unlikely that you would feel the need to own this too. If you don't, it has some attractions: modern sound, the Schoenberg coupling, and for me one of the strongest - Pisar's narration of his own text.

There are, though, some detractions of this otherwise excellent disc: the sound quality is not as good in Weill's opening work as in the other two, and it is somewhat irritating that text is sometimes given in English and sometimes in German, but for no work is there bilingual text. The listener is instead directed to the orchestra's website, This may be a minor quibble but nevertheless it is an annoying feature of the packaging of an interesting disc.

Julie Williams




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