Max Doehlemann was born in Hamburg in 1970 and has here constructed a disc that centres on Jewish liturgical music in the context of its development in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany. He has therefore set examples of liturgy, as well as a German language setting of Psalm 137. His intention in some of these works is to ‘discuss and embellish’ and he is not afraid to evoke Hassidic cantillation, or to mark the Hebrew-Aramaic element. All this sounds, in cold print, possibly over-scholastic or off-putting, or both, but in practice it’s not quite so.
There is one singer, a soprano, and a ‘cantillation’, a role taken by Esther Kontarsky. These two female voices are diametrically opposed; Kontarsky’s liturgical and Chassidic intensity is balanced in other pieces by the slim-toned purity and ‘classicism’ of Andrea Chudak. Accompaniment varies in these pieces. Marimba, vibraphone and piano in Reflections on the Hebrew Bible – No.1: Pinchas gives the music a strange air at times; it put me in mind of a Hassidic Modern Jazz Quartet. The slightly boppish air is not pervasive throughout the disc though.
There’s a good and contrastingly refined element to the more focused pieces in which two instruments, or voice and accompanying instrument, play off and against each other. Hashikivenu, for soprano and piano, is clement and lyric for the most part though there are some obstinately angular passages too. Doehlemann uses a viola along with Chudak’s soprano and his own piano in Psalm 137, By the rivers of Babylon. The middle voice offers plangency, pathos and in its tremolando passages incident too, before the more vehement outburst by the soprano. Passagen is the longest single piece, written for violin and piano. It embraces dancing patterns alternating with slower sections. Hassidic vitality also embraces melancholy, as the writing from around the eight minute mark shows.
The piano writing is often obviously percussive in many of these works – by which I mean that it is meant to evoke Aramaic qualities of sound and timbre. There are also Tintinnabulist moments too, as in Uva Letziyon. I didn’t know, before listening, that Doehlemann writes film music, but I think one could infer it from the last piece, Reflections on the Hebrew Bible – No.3: 1st Book of Samuel 16:23. which is an arrestingly written piece, and vibrant.
It’s quite hard to describe Doehlemann’s music here. It has a Hassidic core, both vocally and timbrally, but there are other things going on as well. There’s a jazz trio sensibility to some of the writing, and a colourful, rhythmic filmic sense of compression and incident. This is certainly not a ‘heritage’ disc which promotes preservation. Rather it offers a dialogue between past and present, a cross-currency that proves fruitful and inventive.