Of all the Jewish holidays, none is so firmly rooted in the home and so joyously celebrated with song as Passover. This simple fact would lead you to expect an avalanche of Passover records, but this year the avalanche is more like a mild rain of pebbles, at least in the quantity department. The quality is pretty high, but don't count on finding much for your own seder table. These records should come with the warning: "Trained singing professionals; do not try this at home."
The two most unusual and interesting of the four new CDs both use hip-hop as a touchstone. Samples, cut-ups, rapping, multiple overdubbing with hard beats -- the usual package -- used artfully by Craig Taubman on "The Passover Lounge" (Craig + Co.) and Josh Dolgin, better known as SoCalled, on "The SoCalled Seder: A Hip-Hop Haggadah" (JDub).
Taubman's outing is more musically conservative, generally staying close to the familiar holiday tunes and drawing on a trippy vibe that nicely complements his breezy tenor singing. Co-producer Luke Tozour provides some tasty beats and samples and a lot of friendly ambient sound. (Hey, guys, my seder never sounds this mellow -- where is all the screaming and yelling?) It's a nice little package that turns the Four Questions into juicy, dreamy funk and the recounting of the plagues into something like "old-skool horror" rap. If Taubman has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, the humor is affectionate and endearing.
SoCalled, unsurprisingly, is after something tougher, with more street cred and a straight-razor edge. Taking samples from old how-to-do-a-seder records and slicing and dicing them into a bubbling stew of breakbeat sounds, scratching from P.Love, klezmer instrumentals from Elaine and Susan Hoffman Watts, high-powered sax funk from Paul Shapiro, and a startling rap from Killah Priest on the plagues, he has created a Pesach for downtown hipsters. I love it but I'm pretty sure my zayde would not. As the old joke goes, if he were alive, this would kill him. Be forewarned.
If you are seeking a more traditional Passover recording, you might be more comfortable with "The Spirit of Passover: Voices of the Conservative Movement" (Cantors Assembly/United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), a sampler that was actually released last year but which didn't turn up on my desk until a few weeks ago. The current issue of Judaism is devoted to a long discussion of the current state and possible future of the Conservative movement, but if you want a truly vivid portrait of the many directions in which its adherents are pulling, this CD is the thing.
The record opens with a burst of Hollywood Strings-style kitsch that suddenly turns into a veritable explosion of "Ki Lo Na'eh/Had Gadya" sung by the Three Jewish Tenors. Meir Finkelstein, Alberto Mizrahi and David Propis sound like the musical equivalent of human cannonballs on this gleeful tribute to Moyshe Oysher, but it's not a great idea to open a record at this energy level, because anything that follows is bound to be a letdown.
And much of what follows is a new-agey, Celine Dionish ode to Rebbe Nachman written by Jeff Klepper and sung by Eva Robbins, although nothing is quite so dire as "The Empty Chair." Things couldn't get worse than that and, fortunately, they don't. Indeed, there are some real high points: a lithe "Dayeinu" performed by the Syracuse Children's Chorus, a supremely simple but powerful "Hodu Ladonai" from Sam Weiss, a haunting "Livbavtini" in which a multitracked Ramon Tasat duets with himself and an audacious "Prayer for Dew: Tal" in which Moshe Schulhof sings with a recording of the legendary Yossele Rosenblatt. If you look up "chutzpahdik" in the dictionary, you'll probably find a photo of Schulhof, but to his everlasting credit, he holds his own with the man most consider the single greatest hazzan of all time. (Available from www.TheSpiritSeries.com.)
The final entry in this year's Pesach sweepstakes is a somber one, Max Helfman's "Di Naye Hagode" (Milken Archive/Naxos). Helfman's oratorio is not, strictly speaking, a Passover commemoration in the strict sense of the word. Rather, it is a 1948 piece he wrote in memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on Passover in 1943. Using the seder as a structural armature on which to mount "di naye hagode," that is, "the new telling," Helfman wrote a frequently powerful, occasionally bombastic piece for choir, narrator and orchestra. This recording features particularly forceful contributions from the Choral Society of Southern California, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale and narrator Theodore Bikel, who never succumbs to the temptation to "emote," wisely allowing Itzik Fefer's stark, bleak text to do the hard work. The CD also features an effective rendition of Helfman's "Hag Habikkurim" and a surprisingly mournful "The Holy Ark." The result is one of the best releases in the Milken Archive series to date.
George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, "Essential Torah," will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.