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Gyora NOVAK (b.1934)
The Jews of York (1995), in Hebrew and English (also known as Sh’maa!: The Dirge of York) [71.13]
Rohan McCollough and Gyora Novak (speakers), Eidit Arad (mezzo), Nicholas Hill (horn), Catherine Butler-Smith (oboe), David Watkins (harp), Robert Truman (cello), Chris Brannick (percussion)
rec. venue and date not specified, (?) All Saints Chapel, Eastbourne, UK; Christchurch, Sutton, UK, 2002
CLAUDIO CC4832-2 [71.13]

Works based on historic atrocities appear to be a phenomenon which has arisen during the twentieth century – one thinks of Penderecki’s Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima, Andrzej Panufnik’s Katưn Epitaph, Martinů’s Lidice and Michael Parkin’s Srebenica among others – where the composer reflects from a personal and emotional perspective on events that lie during their immediate lifetimes or the recent past. Such works tend by their very nature to be relatively brief in duration; but here the Israeli composer Gyora Novak has produced a work lasting well over half an hour on the subject of one of the greatest of mediaeval atrocities in England during the Middle Ages, the massacre of the Jews of York in 1190. The booklet notes for this release explain the background to the piece, beginning with the composer’s viewing of a television documentary in 1992 and his subsequent visit to York in 1993. It was intended to be performed only once, on the 805th anniversary of the tragedy, in the ruins of Clifford’s Tower; but this disc, funded by the “York 1190 Remembered Foundation”, is promoting the placing of a commemorative stone at the site, and the acoustic suggests that this is a later studio recording (the date and venues given above derive from information given on the hbdirect website).

A brief summary of the event itself may well be in order, since this is one of the blood-soaked pages of English history which has been airbrushed out of many textbooks; Volume III of the Oxford History of England manages to dispose of the whole matter in a single paragraph. During the preparations for the departure of Richard ‘The Lion Heart’ on crusade, attacks on rich Jewish communities throughout the country took place, culminating in York where the local population turned on their neighbours (who had lived peacefully under royal protection in the city for many generations), forcing them to take refuge in the Tower where they all – men, women and children – committed suicide. The King’s Guard failed to protect them, and indeed joined in the attacks; no trial was ever held, nobody was punished, and no attempt was made to mourn those who died in the ruins of Clifford’s Tower. In all fairness it should also be reported that the King did attempt to stem the persecution in London, and that contemporary chroniclers such as William of Newburgh (Newbury) did fully report and condemn the events. William’s history provided the basis for an earlier work on the subject, Clifford’s Tower by Malcolm Lipkin, recorded by the Nash Ensemble on a 1986 Hyperion LP (A66164)which is no longer listed in the current catalogue. Following on Lyrita’s issue earlier this year of Lipkin’s three symphonies, it should be restored to circulation.

The recording here gives us two complete performances of the work, one in the original Hebrew and one in English translation. It appears that the latter is superimposed on the same Hebrew performance, with the spoken text in the former language audible at a distance. Each of these two renditions is divided into twenty-five individual tracks, but the text - given in both languages - in the booklet identifies eight numbered sections (but see my note below), and elsewhere refers to the work as containing 36 separate parts. It is therefore sometimes difficult to ascertain, when listening to the music, exactly where we are in terms of the text. This is particularly true in the Hebrew performance, where the words are given solely in the Hebrew alphabet without any provided transliteration. The music itself is often very beautiful indeed, and is superbly well performed. The composer speaks what is described as the ‘baritone part’ and has a very expressive style of delivery which fits the subject well; Eidit Arad delivers the sung mezzo-soprano lines, sometimes rising very high, with a simplicity which is touching. David Watkins, who assisted the composer with the arrangements, leads an ensemble which is always responsive and poised. We are told that the composer is a “self-taught artist” but he has a sense of melodic line which is immediately appealing. As a piece of music, Novak’s score is less immediately dramatic than Lipkin’s; but it is no less deeply felt for all that.

Quite apart from its praiseworthy objective, this disc should have an immediate appeal to the listener which should transcend the subject. In the pure sense of involvement the English-language version is more immediately communicative; but it also serves to highlight the fact that the text given in the booklet over eight tracks — to which I referred in the previous paragraph — is far from complete. The polemic tone of the words may grate on some ears — the people of York are described as “the dregs of humanity” — but given the subject-matter this is completely comprehensible. The ending of the work, dying away on a wisp of sound, is very moving indeed.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review (original release): Jonathan Woolf



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