CLASSICAL MUSIC: Kabbala and Vanished Voices; Festival of Austrian-Jewish Culture, London

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The Independent Culture
Sunday night's Barbican concert in the "Festival of Austrian-Jewish Culture" was given over to Vanished Voices, a lengthy oratorio recalling "a lost world of European Jewry". The musical sequence was fashioned by Neil Levin after the work of past cantorial composers, cushioned with Mendelssohnian harmonies, interspersed with sundry dramatic gestures (such as the cacophonous crescendo of Shema Yisrael followed by silence and total darkness), supplemented with Yiddish songs and narrated by Rabbi Rodney Mariner and Diana Brooks. Levin, a professor of music at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, conducted the English Players; there was theatrical use of coloured light projection (highlighting the conductor, soloists or sections of the various choirs employed), an in situ recording of Edward Murrow's reportage from Buchenwald and taped calls on the trumpet- like shofar. The excellent solo group included Rhiann Katzman, a talented 11-year-old alto whose forceful singing and symbolic representation of the million children lost in the death camps had hundreds fumbling for their handkerchiefs. The narration, which was written by Noah Levy and Victor Tunkel, combined harrowing documentary with sincere but sentimental segments of poetic reflection. Adorno's assertion that "one can no longer write poetry after Auschwitz" seemed temporarily confirmed - but, with so many moved to tears and such obvious gratitude for a genuinely cathartic experience, who could rightly complain?

Vanished Voices treads an accessible middle path towards remembrance and renewal, but it's no masterpiece. To make poetry of hell, you need to be distanced from it - and 50 years is still too close.

Five hundred years is a safer bet, which is perhaps one reason why Rene Clemencic's hour-long oratorio Kabbala (presented last Thursday by an augmented Clemencic Consort at St John's Smith Square) was more artistically successful. Clemencic, who isn't Jewish, was significantly stimulated by the writings of Kabbala expert Gershom Scholem (1897-1982). "In a day when such mystical impulses seem to have dwindled to the vanishing point," wrote Scholem, "they still retain an enormous force in the books of Franz Kafka." Kafka served as a bridge between the old and the new, and Clemencic - an early-music specialist with a passionate commitment to new music - combined the ritual with the surreal. "I didn't want to invent something incredibly `new'," he told us, "something which, after a week, is already incredibly `old'." And indeed, Kabbala places echoes of medieval music into a stylistically ambiguous sound-frame. The forces employed include a quintet of male singers (two countertenors, two tenors and a bass-baritone), five brass players and two heavily employed percussionists. Kabbala opens with a thunderous roll on the bass drum, a crescendoing brass chord and "Vocal Permutations with the Tetragrammaton, the Unpronounceable Name of God" before proceeding through nine further sections and culminating in a "War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness at the End of Time" and a final "Hallelujah". The ecstatically rhythmic, starkly ceremonial closing minutes reminded me - in effect, if not in harmonic complexion - of the Finale from Britten's Spring Symphony, while suggestions of Part and Reich added some post-modern gruel to the medieval mix.