The Days of Awe evoke many feelings, but my first thoughts invariably turn to the special music of these days. From the solemn, almost brooding melody of Kol Nidre to the lilting "High Holiday" tune that unifies the music of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there is much in which to delight.
Perhaps because this is the only synagogue music that many Jews hear all year, there are fewer alternative versions of the High Holiday liturgy than of, say, "Lecha Dodi" or "Adon Olam." Still, these albums should help put you in a proper frame of mind.
Leonard Bernstein -- "Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish)" and "Chichester Psalms" (Milken Archive/Naxos).
For all his conservatory training, for all the years as musical director of great orchestras, Bernstein was fundamentally a man of the theater; his symphonic and choral works owe more to the stage than to the recital hall. These two Jewish-themed compositions from the 1960s offer a reminder of his powerful sense of drama.
As performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic directed by Gerard Schwarz, the emphasis falls rather unflatteringly on the composition's occasionally forced drama, amplified by Willard White's stentorian delivery of Bernstein's text (which the composer himself admitted was "corny").
But nobody expresses yearning better than Bernstein: Think about the love songs from "West Side Story" or "Some Other Time" and "Lonely Town" from "On the Town." The soprano solo, beautifully sung by Yvonne Kenny, in the middle of the symphony is one of the most moving examples of this emotion in all his work.
By contrast, "Chichester Psalms" is remarkably gentle, almost sweet.
Bernstein apparently disdained the piece for precisely that reason, yet it is one of the most effective expressions of both his Jewishness and his deeply spiritual side. This version, featuring Michael White, is quite handsome.
Available at www.amazon.com
Moshe Schulhof -- "Moshe Schulhof Sings the Classics: The World's Greatest Cantorials" (Emes Recordings)
There is a long-standing argument between composers and cantors over what is better to render honor to the Almighty: works that congregants can sing or more difficult, great music written for performance by great voices. To what extent is worship fundamentally participatory? Or can you also find spiritual satisfaction in merely listening?
A powerful argument on behalf of listening comes from recordings of the great cantors of "golden age" chazzans, the Rosenblatts and Sirotas and Hershmanns who dominated Jewish liturgical music in the first third of the 20th century. Schulhof, a powerhouse tenor, very consciously invokes that tradition, offering new renditions of recitatives by Moshe Koussevitsky, Yossele Rosenblatt, Gershon Sirota and others, backed by the Yuval International Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Mordecai Sobol. Schulhof has the same kind of big, operatic voice as his predecessors (although his top is a bit nasal) and if his recordings of these pieces are a bit studied, they are nevertheless impressive for their sheer pyrotechnics.
Available through Hatikvah Music, 436 Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles or www.hatikvahmusic.com.
Greg Siegle -- "Vessels" (MindzEye Music)
Siegle, a young acoustic guitarist in the John Fahey-Leo Kottke vein, has turned his quick, expressive hands to Jewish music. The tunes he essays are mostly familiar ones from Shlomo Carlebach, but he gives them a refreshingly light reading. The result is a very pleasant diversion that should make its way onto a lot of turntables as a prelude to sundown and the holy days.
Available from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Craig Taubman -- "Inscribed: Songs for Holy Days" (Craig and Co.)
There is something about the intensity of the High Holidays experience that brings out the best in Jewish composers. Craig Taubman's previous folk- and pop-tinged CDs have seldom displayed spiritual emotional heat, but "Inscribed" is a cut above his previous work. The production is less busy and Taubman allows his sweet, light tenor to carry more emotional weight. The simplicity of his tunes works to their benefit here, because the weightiness of the themes don't require anything trickier. The result is Taubman's best album to date, as befits the solemnity of the Days of Awe.
Available at www.craignco.com
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