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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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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, arranged by Cantor Louis Danto [7:44]
The Dybbuk: Suite, op.35, for clarinet, strings and percussion [23:24]
Hen hu hivtiach li for voice (Hebrew version) (Behold, he promised me) (1923) [2:50]
Zwei Violinstücke, op.20 [7:01]
Fifty Children’s Songs for voice and piano (1923) Nos 1, 8 & 9 [3:48]
Children’s Songs (Yaldei Sadeh), op.36: No.10 Zumerfeygele (Butterfy) (Jewish folksong) [1:42]
? KAPLAN (18??-19??)
Air (Jewish melody) for violin, harp and harmonium (1912) [2:59]
Alexander ZHITOMIRSKY (1881-1937)
Az ikh volt gehat dem keysters oysters, op.4, no.2 (If I had the emperor’s treasures)
for voice, oboe and piano [3:44]
Rachel Calloway (mezzo-soprano)
Musicians of the Pittsburgh Jewish Festival
rec. 2011-15, Rodef Shalom Congregation, Kresge Recital Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0343 [58:42]

With this release Toccata are continuing their Russian Jewish Classics series, this being volume 3. I imagine there is plenty more in the pipeline because, despite the fact that the composer focussed on in this disc, Joel Engel, is considered as ‘the father of Jewish music’, the fact that he had collected a great deal of music by venturing into Jewish shtetls (villages) shows there was a great deal awaiting discovery. He collected and recorded traditional songs and melodies in much the same way as Bartók did, though much earlier. His self imposed mission was to collate and distil these folk songs and tunes into a ‘classical music’ format thus helping to establish a Jewish national music, immediately identifiable as such in the world of music, again in common with the aims of Bartók and Kodály in relation to Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian folk music and tunes. The reason for there having been a specific word for Jewish villages (shtetls) was because these villages were exclusively Jewish, in other words by dint of Tsarist decrees Jews had being ‘ghettoised’ with the result that 94% of the Jewish population in Tsarist Russia was confined to what was known as the pale of settlement, which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, including all of Belarus, Lithuania and Moldova and much of present-day Ukraine, a part of eastern Latvia and some parts of western Russia, all in all corresponding roughly to today’s Russian border with Western Europe. However, even then Jews were banned from many of the major towns within the pale of settlement. Engel, however, was an exception since his father was a successful merchant, which enabled Joel to live outside (or ‘beyond’) the pale which meant he was able to attend a Russian school and to study music, though he planned to become a lawyer. While working as a children’s tutor in 1893 he met Tchaikovsky shortly before his death who was so impressed with his musical talent that he urged him to study music which he went on to do with Sergei Taneyev, teacher of the likes of Gličre, Medtner, Miaskovsky and Scriabin. It was only during his first year at the Conservatoire that Engel felt that he would like to help establish a Jewish national musical identity; he had been brought up in a secular environment without any overtly religious teaching. The prominent art-critic Vladimir Stasov admonished Engel for his lack of pride in being Jewish and encouraged him to seek out and gather examples of Jewish traditional melodies and songs and to incorporate them into his own compositions. It was, therefore, in the summer of 1897 that he took a leave of absence to go out and note music in the shtetls, which activity he followed up for the next two years as well.

The accompanying booklet gives much fascinating detail about Engel’s forays into the Jewish hinterland and of his difficulties, caused principally by his refined Moscow appearance as well as his lack of understanding of Yiddish (he took an interpreter). Additionally, his possession of a phonograph to record tunes led him to be besieged by awestruck villagers wherever he went, making recording difficult to say the least. Despite these drawbacks by the time he was forced to return from his final expedition due to a family emergency he had amassed 44 recordings on 29 wax cylinders and much of this material found its way into his compositions. As with so much Jewish music there is that attractive synthuesis of joy and sorrow expressed in it which makes it immediately recognisable. That is particularly the case with the opening piece, Engel’s Adagio Misterioso which is fairly dripping with pathos, and the combination of violin, cello, harp and harmonium makes it all the more poignant. It is one of the four first recordings on the disc. Next there are Three Yiddish Songs that are by turns sad and happy and Rachel Calloway’s superbly lyrical voice which has such crystalline clarity makes them quite irresistible while the piano and oboe accompaniment are perfect matches for her beautiful phrasing. The central work in this survey of Engel’s chamber music and folksongs is his incidental music for S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds which became the most famous Yiddish play in history. The importance of this play can be gleaned from the fact that originally it was to have been directed by no less a figure that Stanislavsky, creator of the method school of acting, and, when he fell ill and couldn’t proceed with directing the play it fell to his one of disciples, the no less well respected Yevgeni Vakhtangov, to undertake the task. Unfortunately the play’s author had died just prior to its opening so never lived to see it performed. Engel’s music was so woven into the fabric of the play that it became integral to it. Vakhtangov even employed the Bolshoi’s ballet master Lev Lashchilin to choreograph the centre-piece, the Beggars’ Dances and one can imagine how spectacular it must have appeared with the Bolshoi touch. The music, which works well on its own in this suite, has all the elements that go together to create this thrilling tale of possession by an evil spirit (a dybbuk). One can imagine how well the play went down with its Jewish audiences since the story of the dybbuk is well known in Jewish folklore and the fact that it takes place in a small shtetl, accompanied by music that Engel based on the collections made during his excursions into that world.

‘Hen hu hivtiach li’ for voice (Behold, he promised me) is the Hebrew version of the original that first appeared in German, Yiddish and Russian. It is another characteristically sombre song about a wronged woman who mourns the lover who left her for another but as always is all the more irresistible for it and again Rachel Calloway’s voice is so evocatively perfect as the vehicle of the sentiment.

The two violin pieces are equally poignant in their writing, making for a satisfying wallow in morbidity. Then it’s Rachel Calloway’s turn once again, for a selection of three songs from 50 written around 1916/18 only 5 of which were based on genuine folk originals the rest either simply popular or his own inventions. The final song is also the last piece by Engel on the disc and is from a ‘supplement’ of eleven songs to the earlier 50. Entitled Butterfly it wonders how such a creature can survive a life of constant flying.

Both the first and last pieces on the disc are by contemporaries of Engel, the last by Alexander Zhitomirsky who Engel met while studying with Glazunov, Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov in St Petersburg. His song ‘If I had the emperor’s treasures’ is a lovely lullaby with oboe and piano accompaniment, the oboe particularly suited to highlight the poignant nature of the text. The first item is by Kaplan, about whom virtually nothing is known, not even his first name or his precise dates, apart from his having been born in the 19th century and living until sometime in the twentieth. This is such a shame when the music is so affecting. Its wistful nature is enhanced and highlighted by Kaplan’s use of the harmonium alongside the violin and harp to captivating effect.

Toccata is to be congratulated for enabling music lovers to get acquainted with repertoire such as this, that has struggled to be heard for far too long. The musicians are due an equal debt of thanks for their participation in this project to bring to the public Russian Jewish Classical music and especially the driving force that is Aron Zelkowicz who has the belief and the determination to see the project through. I don’t really feel comfortable singling anyone out for their performance though it would be remiss of me not to have mentioned the thoroughly superb voice of Rachel Calloway (see above).

It is altogether a brilliant disc of magical repertoire which you won’t find elsewhere so do seek it out and you’ll be completely won over. Earlier I said I imagine there’s plenty more of this music to come; I really hope I’m right.

Steve Arloff

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank (Recording of the Month)

 

 




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