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The Yiddish Cabaret
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26 (1933) [24:15]
Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923) [14:35]
Leonid DESYATNIKOV (b 1955)
Jiddisch - five songs for voice and string quartet (2018) [20:54]
Hila Baggio (soprano)
Jerusalem Quartet
rec. 2018, Teldex Studio, Berlin
Sung texts and translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902631 [59:54]

When those nice folk at Harmonia Mundi invited the Jerusalem Quartet to devise a ‘novel’ programme to complement their outstanding back catalogue of standard repertoire, The Yiddish Cabaret was the outcome. This title most obviously alludes to Leonid Desyatnikov’s arrangements of popular Yiddish songs which might have been heard among the streets and nightclubs of Warsaw and Łódź between the wars. Ori Kam, the quartet’s violist has provided both a rationale for the repertoire on this disc and a timely reminder that prior to 1939 Poland was essentially the international centre for the world’s Jews, and that its major cities accommodated a vibrant cultural life that encompassed theatre, film and literature as well as music. While Korngold and Schulhoff both sought refuge from the Nazis (Korngold found fame in Hollywood while Schulhoff left his ‘escape’ to the Soviet Union too late; he failed to get out of Czechoslovakia in time and met a tragic end at the Würzburg concentration camp in 1942) it is less easy to perceive an obvious link to ‘Yiddish’ culture specifically. However, regardless of the persuasiveness or otherwise of the underlying concept, these three works cohere splendidly as a programme, and the Jerusalem Quartet’s civilised performances epitomise the work of this fine group.

I last encountered Korngold’s second quartet a decade or so ago on the Doric Quartet’s Chandos disc of his three works in this form (review). Enjoyable though their playing was, at the time the works themselves struck me as polished of construction but rather anonymous in terms of content. So I was somewhat surprised to hear this new account and find the work to be packed with incident and shot through with both wit and nostalgia. The four movements are tastefully contrasted and deftly coloured. The melodic material actually struck me as memorable, most obviously in the outer movements, especially the concluding waltz which I’ve been humming (to the irritation of my wife) for days. Comparing the Jerusalem performance with its predecessor one swiftly becomes aware of their adoption of broader tempi throughout, which perhaps makes the piece seem more substantial. The delicately textured Larghetto slow movement certainly seems to plumb greater depths here than I’d noted on the Chandos issue, although it may be that listening to one Korngold quartet at a time yields more than hearing the lot in one eighty minute span. It certainly helps when the playing is as distinguished as it is here.

I am more familiar with the Schulhoff pieces; I remain astonished by the resurgence of interest in a figure who has fascinated me for more than forty years thanks to the chance acquisition of an old Supraphon LP (of the showstopping Piano Concerto, Op 43) in 1975. By now there’s more recorded competition for the Five Pieces; the Jerusalem Quartet are a little too cool for me, the recorded sound a little too sanitised. They were written in the same year (1923) as the aforementioned concerto and were dedicated to Darius Milhaud; acerbic irony is inevitably never far from the surface. The tartness of the opening Alla Valse viennese seems insufficiently emphasised; similarly, although the following Alla Serenata is distinguished by expert playing and fulsome sound it comes over as a tad too languid. This is also the case in the Alla tango and Alla tarantella movements, especially when compared with the recording which remains my benchmark for Schulhoff’s quartet music: the Petersen Quartet’s terrific discs of this repertoire emerged in the 1990s and are now available in a budget Schulhoff box on Capriccio (C7297 - these six discs also contain a generous selection of this mercurial composer’s invigorating orchestral and piano oeuvre).

The piece that most obviously justifies the disc’s title is Leonid Desyatnikov’s song cycle Jiddisch, especially commissioned by Harmonia Mundi for this project. While the arrangements may be fresh, the songs themselves are not. In their original form, these cabaret staples might well have been instantly recognisable to Jewish inhabitants of the larger Polish cities; as Desyatnikov states in the booklet: “Usually this type of music is assigned to the ‘lowbrow’ area. It is the eclectic culture of the assimilantes, the lumpenproletariat and the outsiders, the culture of cheap chic……a brazen, talented culture full of self-irony and latent despair.” The objective seems to be to rehabilitate Yiddish as a colourful linguistic vehicle which readily conveys the humour, disappointment, and aspirations of human beings just as effectively and precisely as any other tongue. And in more personal terms, the project strives to recreate a vernacular that would have been familiar to the Jerusalem Quartet’s own grandparents, to whom the album is dedicated. The songs are performed with assertiveness, effervescence and charm by the talented Israeli soprano Hila Baggio.

The first number Warsaw is a poised if ultimately rather sardonic homage to the Polish capital. It’s a marriage of sweet and bitter, of honeyed violins with acerbic viola and cello. The darkness at its conclusion is deftly projected by Baggio. The following song translates as In a house where one cries and one laughs and consists of a lament in which Baggio describes the sad fate of a woman forced into prostitution; her frustration, disillusionment, and nostalgia for a better past are theatrically communicated by the soprano, in tandem with Desyatnikov’s chaste, butter-wouldn’t-melt string accompaniment. In I steal at night the narrator celebrates the misadventures of an urban ne’er-do-well in a puckish song which hints at klezmer toward its end, while Yosi un Sore-Dvoshe is a wordy and witty dialogue depicting the aspirations of a poor young couple who yearn to get married and enjoy a better life which appears to be out of reach. Desyatnikov here contributes a clever and sensitive arrangement of a song which seems to epitomise a Yiddish cultural archetype. There’s style and suavity aplenty in the quartet’s playing, while Baggio’s light soprano sparkles in a richly characterised performance which demonstrates her fine acting skills. The cycle concludes with another ‘thief’s’ song, Won’t steal anymore, in which the protagonist bemoans his lot as he festers in the city jail and makes the titular pledge which he has little intention (and even less inclination) of keeping. The sound of the colourful syllabic Yiddish text constitutes music in itself, while the members of the quartet briefly support Baggio with their own less than virtuosic vocal contributions. Desyatnikov has crafted an entertaining cycle which is earthily brought to life by all concerned.

On its own terms this issue would make a fine concert souvenir, and the three works hang together surprisingly well. Perhaps the programme itself might have benefitted by the song-cycle being placed in the middle. The Harmonia Mundi sound is characteristically warm and inviting. The disc certainly provides a fascinating contrast to the core repertoire for which the Jerusalem Quartet are deservedly renowned, although to my mind it seems a bit of a contrivance to accommodate the Korngold and Schulhoff pieces within the confines of this rather specific concept.

Richard Hanlon

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