Yehudi WYNER (b. 1929)
1. Shir Hashirim (SA Version) (2001) [2.38]
2. The Torah Service (1966) [15.03]
3. Shir Hashirim (SATB) (2001) [2.42]
4. Friday Evening Service (1963) [33.51]
Joshua Breitzer (cantor) (2, 4)
Thomas McCargar (baritone) (2)
Wellesley College Choir (1)
New York Virtuoso Singers (2-4)
unnamed instrumental ensemble (2)
Unnamed orchestra (4)
Susan Davenny Wyner (conductor) (1)
Yehudi Wyner (conductor) (2-4)
rec. 12 April 1996, Houghton Chapel Wellesley College (1); 9-10 September 2009, American Academy of Arts and Letters (2-4)
BRIDGE 9333 [54.49]

This is volume 3 of Bridge’s series Music of Yehudi Wyner and this volume is dedicated to his sacred music. I must confess that Wyner was a name new to me. His Piano Concerto was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. He has taught at Yale, SUNY Purchase, Cornell and Harvard and is now Professor Emeritus at Brandeis University. Wyner was born in Canada and his father, Lazar Weiner, was a composer of Yiddish art song and much liturgical music. He studied with Hindemith and Walter Piston, and in 1953 won the Rome Prize in Composition.

The two major services on this disc were written for liturgical use. In his booklet note, Wyner says that he had never envisioned the services being performed in a concert situation, and that he had had no intention of orchestrating the works’ organ accompaniment. But that the changes and decline in classical Jewish sacred music had caused him to change his mind and seek a home for the works outside the synagogue. With this change, came the decision to orchestrate these scores.

The Torah Service was written to private commission and first performed by a group of Yale students at a synagogue in Woodbridge, Connecticut in 1966. The Friday Evening Service was commissioned by the Park Avenue Synagogue of New York and first performed there on 3 May 1963.

Both services, as presented here, take the form of a series of prayers in which the cantor alternates with the choir. One rather distinctive feature is that the cantor mixes speaking and singing, rather than singing all his responses. Also, though the services are sung in Hebrew, the cantor’s spoken sections tend to be in Hebrew followed by the English version. I am unclear how much of this reflects standard liturgical practice and how much was adopted for the recording.

The result is a series of short items forming a complete whole; there are no large-scale movements. The writing is vigorous and not afraid of noise and dissonance, though Wyner’s style remains strictly tonal. The orchestral accompaniments and interjections have a strong feeling of the writing of Stravinsky and Hindemith, though the vocal writing is more lyrical than would have been expected from these sources. The results have strong personality and must have created a very distinctive atmosphere when performed in liturgical context. This is not shy and retiring music. Wyner is not frightened of making sacred music which is noisy and lively; he is not content with being well mannered and staying in the background.

The performances from the New York Virtuoso Singers are creditable without being stunning. There are moments of uncertainty of ensemble but they give full value to the vigorous nature of the music. Cantor Joshua Breitzer has a large role to play, one that he does admirably and with confidence. At the time of recording Breitzer was a student cantor of Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold, Maryland. Baritone Thomas McCargar contributes some nice solo moments in The Torah Service.

Wyner was introduced to the melody Shir Hashirim, by his father. It was originally sung by the Jews of Georgia (Russia). Wyner has made a number of arrangements of the piece and this disc includes one for women’s voices (conducted by his wife), and for mixed voice choir. The pieces make for nice punctuation points in the disc.

The CD booklet contains a long article by Wyner on the music and concludes with some illuminating paragraphs on the state of Jewish liturgical music and his reasons for recording the services. Full English texts are given, but unfortunately the Hebrew is not. Nor do the texts indicate the divisions between choir and cantor, which I think might have been useful. The CD cover and booklet use very evocative pictures by Isaiah Wyner.

Generally, in the CD catalogue the term sacred music is taken to mean music writing for the Christian liturgy. This disc presents some significant sacred music derived from the 20th century Jewish tradition. The performances are not perfect, but under the composer’s own direction they have a significant authority and illuminate the different pathways of Jewish sacred music.

Robert Hugill

The performances are not perfect, but under the composer’s own direction they have a significant authority and illuminate the different pathways of Jewish sacred music.