You don’t need to be a genius to see that the music industry, like the other branches of the media, is driven almost entirely by desire for profit. Perhaps that is not an entirely bad thing, but with the continuing consolidation of media companies, the bottom line really means bottom, as in lowest common denominator.
Perhaps because it is the liturgical music with which I am most familiar, perhaps the emotions of the occasion are always so heightened. But for whatever reason, I believe there is no music in the Jewish tradition more powerful than the various versions of the High Holy Days service, whatever its provenance. Composers as various as Ernest Bloch and Max Bruch have been drawn to this music and for a cantor it is undoubtedly the crown of the year. Below are six new recordings that speak directly to tradition and a seventh which comments on it obliquely but passionately.
This year produced 16 five-star recordings, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. However, because of space limitations, I am forced to choose a 10-best list. That doesn’t mean the rest are anything less than wonderful, and I have listed them all here.
“Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda” (Smithsonian Folkways)
The CDs have been piling up on my desk in recent weeks. Happily, there are some real gems here, so clearing the desk is a pleasure. Hopefully, this will encourage you to grab some for yourself before the leaves turn. But get comfortable, because this will go on until the proverbial frost is on the proverbial pumpkin. Or the snow is on the chanukiyah.
Choral Music of Congregation Shearith Israel (self-distributed)
Recently one of the great American newspapers carried a long guide to recent recordings of world music in its arts pages. The article was thoughtful, intelligent and, for the most part, a splendid introduction to the field, covering everything from sub-Saharan Africa to Celtic music.
There was only one striking omission: the author didn’t discuss a single recording of Jewish music of any kind.
Long before hip-hop turned sampling into an art form, before “postmodernism” became a label slapped on anyone whose music borrowed eclectically from other cultures and traditions, Jewish music was evolving through a process of accretion, taking scales from this neighbor, rhythms from that one, harmonies from yet another, making a virtue of the necessities of the diaspora.
That process has continued to this moment as contemporary Jewish musicians unblushingly put the hyphens in klez-jazz.
It was not, perhaps, the most fortuitous timing. The coincidence of Muhammad “Abu” Abbas, the Palestinian who engineered the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, being captured by American troops in Baghdad in mid-April and the debut of a new film version of John Adams’ opera about the hijacking, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” is not the sort of publicity-grabbing confluence of events that a major arts organization like Lincoln Center usually seeks.
The ongoing war between the cantors and the congregants usually turns to a cease-fire when the High Holy Days arrive. For a few days each year, even the most fervent would-be singers are content to let the pros handle the more difficult repertoire. (Especially on an empty stomach.) But on the CD turntable, the tension between liturgy as performance and liturgy as prayer goes on. These recent recordings, mostly of prayer and Biblical texts run the gamut from “follow the bouncing chazan” to “shut up and listen.”
Billy Wilder used to joke about his former compatriots in Austria. He would say, “The Austrians are a marvelous people: they have convinced the whole world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German.” Axel Corti, a Paris-born, half-Italian, half-Austrian filmmaker, would have undoubtedly appreciated this jibe. Corti, who died of leukemia in 1993, spent his entire career as a film, theater and radio director putting the Austrian-Jewish connection under the microscope of his art with scathing results.