Perhaps it is the intensity of the emotions raised by the liturgy itself. Or the power of worshipping in a sanctuary filled with people. Or the sense that everything is at stake.
I like to think it's the music.
But whatever the reason, the High Holidays provide some of the greatest frissons one can experience in a synagogue. And the music is, indeed, a big part of those rising chills. One need look no farther than four new CDs that include generous helpings of music for the Days of Awe to hear evidence of the power of these holidays to inspire composers and performers.
Sometimes the simplest music has the greatest impact. Consider "Shomeah Tefillah: Prayers of the High Holy Days," a CD by Cantor Lois Welber of Temple B'nai Israel, Revere, Mass. Almost all the music on this recording is from Israel Alter, one of the great Conservative cantors of the 20th century.
Alter didn't write classical hazanut; his compositions are devoid of the coloratura pyrotechnics of the Golden Age cantors. Rather, his settings of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies, published 35 years ago, are straightforward, emotionally direct and comparatively simple. And that is the source of their power.
Welber opts for an equally simple and powerful approach. Accompanied only by organist Ernest Rakhlin or pianist David Sparr, she tackles Alter's music head-on, not with flash but great feeling. Welber has a resonant mezzo voice, not glitzy but profoundly effective. The result is a tribute to the power of simplicity.
The mandolin i s an instrument whose sound resonates with poignancy. In the hands of masters like Dave Grisman and Andy Statman, the gentle ringing of its strings carries a powerful emotional charge.
Put those two musicians together with "a collection of timeless Jewish melodies," as their new CD "New Shabbos Waltz" bills itself, and the result is a sterling blend of deeply emotive music.
The set kicks off with a melancholy "Avinu Malkeinu," with Statman's plangent clarinet stating the traditional tune while Grisman comps behind him. The duo deftly trade leads on this and the other cuts on the record, aided immeasurably by some silky slide guitar from Bob Brozman and rock-solid timekeeping by Hal Blaine on drums and Jim Kerwin on bass.
Statman is in a more playful mood than on his recent excursions into Chasidic mysticism, and his interplay with Grisman is delightful throughout.
Two of the latest entries in Naxos Records' series of Milken Archive recordings feature contemporary orchestral pieces inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. In fact, both Herman Berlinski ("From the World of My Father") and David Stock ("A Little Miracle") have tried their hand at re-imaginings of the shofar service for Rosh Hashanah. (Given that this year Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat and there is no shofar service, I find this an amusing coincidence.)
Berlinski (1910-2001) was a student of the great Nadia Boulanger, albeit an unhappy one, and I think I detect some of her influence in the rich, dense sound tapestry of Berlinski's "From the World of My Father," a lovely 1941 piece that pays homage to the synagogue and folk music of Eastern Europe. His 1964 "Shofar Service" is a fairly straightforward setting of the old Union Prayerbook liturgy, here ably performed by the BBC Singers conducted by Avner Itai.
Not surprisingly, Berlinski blends two trumpets with the shofar itself, to considerable dramatic effect. Although he was a friend of Olivier Messiaen and his circle, on the pieces included here, Berlinski is not interested in the less-is-more aesthetic of Messiaen; his is a resolutely post-Romantic palette, whether he is writing for organ ("The Burning Bush") or full orchestra ("Symphonic Visions for Orchestra").
Stock, who was born in 1939, is of a more obviously modernist bent than Berlinski. His operatic monodrama, "A Little Miracle," which retells an extraordinary story of Holocaust survivors, owes a bit of its rhythmic drive to Schoenberg (perhaps with a nod to Gershwin).
But his "Yizkor" is surprisingly conservative, powerfully melodic and quietly restrained. By contrast, his shofar piece, "Tekiah," written for trumpet and crisply performed by Stephen Burns and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble with the composer conducting, has moments that are distinctly reminiscent of the heyday of minimalism. One hears echoes of Glass in the repetitive ensemble figures behind the staccato trumpet line, and the contrast between foreground and background is a fruitful one. The result is an intriguing recording, but I don't imagine your local shul is going to try it any time soon.
George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, "Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses," will be published by Shocken Books in October.
"Shomeah Tefillah: Prayers of the High Holy Days," can be purchased at www.loiswelber.com.
"New Shabbos Waltz" can be purchased at www.acousticdisc.com
"From the World of My Father" and "A Little Miracle" can be purchased at www.milkenarchive.org.