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
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
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, www.sinfonieorchester.ch. This
may be a minor quibble but nevertheless
it is an annoying feature of the packaging
of an interesting disc.