by Walter Simmons
PERGAMENT The Jewish Song. Birgit Nordin, soprano; Sven-Olof Eliasson, tenor; Stockholm Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra; James DePriest, conductor. Caprice CAP 2003 (2 LPs)
“. . . Among the most moving experiences of my life! The music tears the heart from the body; one can hardly stand any more.” This was the reaction of a Stockholm music critic who attended the resurrection in 1974 of Moses Pergament’s large-scale cantata, The Jewish Song, performed for the first time since its premiere in 1948—and a reaction likely to be echoed by many now that the work is available on records.
Now 84, Moses Pergament was born in Finland of orthodox Jewish parents. While in his 20s he moved to Sweden where he has pursued a career both as composer and music critic. The 73-minute cantata was written in the incredible period of three weeks during 1944, but it has taken more than 30 years for this work to make its way into the music world at large. Fortunately, one’s fascination with its curious background is justified by the quality of the work itself.
Divided into 13 sections, the cantata is based on a collection entitled Jewish Poems by Ragnar Josephson (also known as Ehren Preis), written in 1916. The poems (for whose translation I am indebted to Prof. Ester Krebs of NYU) express an unrelieved outcry of anguish, relentlessly recounting ages of abuse and misery, and ultimately concluding with the hope that steadfast faith will bring redemption in the end. A sense of the invincible bond of brotherhood that unites through shared suffering lends dignity and nobility to the outpouring of emotion.
The music that underscores these powerful sentiments does them justice, in a strong, serious mainstream neo-romantic idiom that one is tempted to describe as Hilding Rosenberg with a Jewish accent. The Jewish accent lies in the recurrence of the lowered fifth scale step and the interval of the augmented second. However, these devices are considerably more subdued here than, for example, in the “Jewish period” works of Ernest Bloch. There is a certain austerity and distance of vision that one associates with the modern Scandinavian symphonists. Yet this Nordic reserve cannot dispel the sense of ferocious immediacy that informs the work from beginning to end.
The cantata is led with authority and conviction by James DePriest, who has been demonstrating extraordinary independence of judgment and discriminating musical perception for some time now. One wishes he were given more opportunity to document his discoveries on record. Of the soloists, tenor Sven-Olof Eliasson suffers from a rather pinched, strident tone, but soprano Birgit Nordin reveals a voice of unusual lightness and flexibility. This is definitely one of the year’s major releases.