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Joel ENGEL (1868-1927)
Chamber Music and Folksongs
Adagio Misterioso, Op. 22 for violin, cello, harp and harmonium [4:57]*
Three Yiddish Songs for voice, oboe and piano, arr. Cantor Louis Danto [7:14]
The Dybbuk: Suite, Op. 35 for clarinet, strings and percussion [23:24]
Hen hu hivtiach li for voice, violin and piano (1923) [2:50]*
2 Violinstücke, Op. 20 [7:01]
50 Children's Songs  for voice and piano (nos. 9,8,1) (1923) [3:48]
11 Children’s Songs (Yaldei Sadeh) Op. 36 (no. 10) [1:42]*
Israel KAPLAN (18??-19??)
Air (Jewish Melody) (1912) [2:59]*
Alexander ZHITOMIRSKY (1881-1937)
Az ikh volt gehat dem keysers oystres, Op. 4, No. 2 for voice, oboe and piano [3:44]
Rachel Calloway (mezzo-soprano)
Musicians of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival
rec. 2011/12 Rodef Shalom Congregation and Kresge Recital Hall, Carnegie Mellon University
*First recordings

This is Volume 3 in Toccata Classics’ 'Russian Jewish Classics' series. The previous issues were devoted to Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930) (review) and Joachim Stutschewsky (1891-1982) (review). I've heard neither, but Steve Arloff's enthusiastic reviews are encouraging. The focus of attention in this new release is Joel Engel (1868-1927), who played an important role in the forming of a Jewish national identity prior to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. He also holds the distinction of being the first Jewish ethnomusicologist, travelling the length and breadth of the Podolia region,  located in the west-central and south-western parts of Ukraine and in north-eastern Moldova, to collect and record Jewish folksongs. Eventually he was able to make use of the latest technological device, the phonograph, and record villagers on wax cylinders. This provided him with an audio archive, where he could capture the music's nuances and inflections, something that eluded him in the written score.

Engel's father was a successful merchant, and the accompanying prosperity this brought allowed the family to settle outside the Pale of Settlement. Joel was able to attend a Russian school and take music lessons. He initially studied for a law degree at the University of Kharkov in 1890, but it was Tchaikovsky, impressed by his musical gifts, who urged him to change direction and enrol at the Moscow Conservatory in 1893. His composition teacher was Sergei Taneyev. Upon graduation he worked as a music critic and lecturer. Around the same time he started to compose, with Jewish folk song becoming central to his work. He eventually became widely regarded as the “father of modern Jewish music”. In 1922 he relocated to Berlin, and from there to Palestine in 1924, where he died three years later.

He had a preference for working in smaller forms, rather than espousing larger symphonic structures, and this is evidenced in the music on this disc. His compositions are suffused with Jewish folk melodies, which he was averse to tampering with. Accompaniments are strikingly simplistic.

Centre-stage is the Dybbuk: Suite, Op. 35, the most substantial work at 23 minutes. Engel teamed up with Semyon Ansky (1862-1920), a Jewish author and playwright, for an ethnographic expedition in 1912. They came across the folk tale of a “dybbuk”, the possession of a living person by the soul of a dead one. It later became the subject of one of Ansky's plays, and Engel provided the incidental music. Such was the popularity of Engel's score that he arranged it into a six-movement suite for clarinet, strings and percussion: I. For What Reason? – From Song of Songs (Mipneh Mah? – M’schir Haschi); II. Beggars’ Dances (M’choloth Hakabzanim); III. Wedding March (Marsch Chatunah); IV. The Veiling of the Bride (Chipuy Hakalah);V. Hassidic Melody (Nigun Chassidim);VI. From Song of Songs – For What Reason? (reprise). It traces the storyline of the play.

The first movement employs two themes - 'For What Reason?' and 'Song of Songs', with the former interwoven throughout the score. In the final movement the themes are reprised in reverse order. I particularly like the Beggars' Dances, and it gave me a feeling of déjà entendu, so familiar it sounded. It becomes heated and frenetic as it progresses, with Ron Samuels's clarinet playing capturing the idiom to perfection. The Wedding March is an elegant square dance or 'sher'. The Veiling of the Bride is more reserved and improvisatory in style. The Hassidic Melody, an original by Engel, has a certain dignity and nobility.

A fair proportion of the works on this release feature the voice, and the American mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway, who also sings on Volume 1, here provides finely-tuned and stylish contributions. Alluring is the richness and warmth of her timbre.  Apparently she specializes in contemporary and modern music. She has an instinctive feel for this music, and an innate sensitivity to the ebb and flow of the line. Sample the delightful Ritshkele, the second of the Three Yiddish Songs, and you'll be amazed how well she characterizes the rippling brook. In the third song, Akh! Nit gut! (Woe is me) there's melancholy and despondency as she contemplates her fate, effectively reinforced by the plangent tones of the oboe. The four Children's Songs, accompanied by Rodrigo Ojeda on piano, are melodically generous, and Calloway's pure and flexible voice and clarity of diction is a strong selling point.

The first of the 2 Violinstücke, Op. 20 is heard in an arrangement for cello and piano by Uri Vardi. It has a haunting melody, ideally suited to the deep, burnished tones of that instrument. No. 2, retaining its original violin and piano scoring, fuses Jewish elements with a traditional classical Romantic tradition. The CD begins and ends with music composed by Engel's lesser-known contemporaries. The short Air (Jewish Melody) by Kaplan is a fitting opener, setting the scene and atmosphere for what is to follow. I suppose the use of the harmonium has a certain Marmite effect. I love it as an instrument. It's also employed in Engel’s Adagio Misterioso, Op. 22, and works very effectively in combination with violin, cello and harp.  

These performances were recorded under the auspices of the Pittsburgh Jewish Festival. The 40 page booklet notes are exemplary. Original texts and English translation of the songs is included. Rachel Calloway's sensitive and idiomatic performances cannot be faulted. The Musicians of the Pittsburgh Jewish Festival perform with enthusiasm and compelling musicianship, which is infectious. Added to this, the sound quality is crystal clear throughout. This is a thoroughly enjoyable disc, a joy from start to finish.

Stephen Greenbank



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