BLOCH: Sacred Service. FOSS: The Song of Songs. BEN-HAIM: Sweet Psalmist of Israel. Robert Merrill, baritone (cantor); Jennie Tourel, mezzo-soprano; Leonard Bernstein conducting the Choirs of the Metropolitan Synagogue and the Community Church of New York and the New York Philharmonic. SONY SM2K 47533 [ADD]; two discs: 52:26, 53:59. Produced by John McClure, Howard H. Scott, David Oppenheim, Dennis D. Rooney.
This is a recent installment in the series of Bernstein reissues, featuring material from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, called by Sony classics, “The Royal Edition,” for no apparent reasonother than the use of seemingly irrelevant paintings by Prince Charles as cover illustrations. This volume is dubbed, “Music from the Jewish Tradition,” and presents recordings from the years 1958 through 1960.
Bloch’s Sacred Service (1930-33) is probably the greatest piece of Jewish liturgical music. It is a glorious work that weds the composer’s blazingly passionate orchestral style with a choral polyphony rooted in Renaissance practice, and with cantorial lines that range from the diatonically modal to more explicitly Hebraic melismas. The entirety is unified by a single melodic motif that permeates the fabric of the work.
Bernstein’s performance is the most notable to appear on recording, and is, in some — but not all — aspects, the best. Robert Merrill, singing in Hebrew, is excellent in the prominent role of the cantor, lending a vocal refinement often missing from performances by those who chiefly inhabit the more circumscribed world of cantorial singing. The choral and orchestral contributions are thoroughly polished and fervent as well. On the other hand, Bernstein’s phrasing illustrates his most taffy-pulling tendencies, with constant rubati in choral passages that are profoundly moving on their own, without any need for such distortion and distension. Quite controversial also is the rendering of several recitative passages — distinctly notated — in a spoken, rather than sung, manner. In clear disregard of the composer’s intentions, this rendering reduces the aesthetic universal appeal of the work considerably, with no explanation or justification provided. What is especially unfortunate is that the auspiciousness of this recording set a precedent that has been followed in a number of subsequent performances I have heard. In conclusion, this is certainly a rendition that admirers of theSacred Service cannot ignore, but it cannot be regarded as definitive.
The other current recording of the Sacred Service dates from 1978, and is led by Geoffrey Simon (Chandos CHAN-8418), with baritone Louis Berkman, the Zemel Choir and the London Symphony Orchestra. This performance is fine, though less polished than the Bernstein in every respect. However, it is a more straightforward interpretation, and follows the composer’s directions with regard to the aforementioned recitatives.
An overview of Lukas Foss’ career shows him to be one of the century’s most successful bandwagon jumpers, whose artistic development seems chiefly to have been a matter of going where the action is. On the other hand, no one can deny the man’s extraordinary musical talent, or his ability to package his products with considerable surface appeal. Song of Sonqs is quite an early work, written when Foss was 24, with a text from the Song of Solomon. At the same age and at the same place — Tanglewood — Foss’ similarly facile long-time friend and colleague Bernstein wrote his “Jeremiah” Symphony”, making for an apt and illuminating comparison that I won’t dwell on here.) Song of Songs is really quite irresistible, with an infectious, lightly fluent lyricism and a refreshing sort of neo-Baroque coolness of sonority. Of course, the work’s considerable appeal is undeniably second-hand and referential, with nods to Stravinsky, primarily, but this won’t bother most people. The rendition is extraordinary: Jennie Tourel makes a stunning contribution, the orchestra is at its best, and Bernstein — also at his best in this kind of music — leads a performance that must be called definitive.
Also attractive is Sweet Psalmist of Israel, by Ben-Haim 1897-1964), considered to be one of the major works of the leading member of the older generation of Israeli composers The work was written in 1952-53, to commemorate King David’s conquest of Jerusalem, and each of its three movements is based on a relevant biblical quotation. The scoring is rather unusual, the first movement featuring winds and harpsichord, the second, strings and harp, and the third, everyone. The element of sonority is prominent in the work and contributes to its appeal while the central movement, in particular, has moments of considerable beauty. However, the combination of neoclassical detachment and middle-Eastern folk elements produces an artificial, unfocused result, so that the work’s fervent and grandiose conclusion doesn’t seem justified as an authentic culmination. The performance, featuring harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe and harpist Christine Stavrache, is excellent.