Classical: Sight Readings - Back to Jewish roots

A unique archive of folk music has been given new life, as have historic piano recordings
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The Independent Culture
In 1911 a group of folklorists set out from St Petersburg to comb the Russian shtetls for Jewish songs and chants. Inspired by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and led by SM Ansky - author of The Dybbuk - they wanted to record this oral tradition before it evaporated for good. The resulting collection of cylinders was so impressive that the incoming Bolsheviks decreed that the work should continue in Kiev, and put their own man in charge. Moses Beregovsky was a good Stalinist and an excellent folklorist, and until his deportation to Siberia in 1949 he recorded and meticulously transcribed several thousand more songs and texts. However, when he was released in 1955 the cylinders were found to have disappeared, and people came to assume that this unique archive had been destroyed.

Now the ebullient Israel Adler, professor of musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, takes up the tale. "Four years ago the director of the National Library in Kiev came to see us about photocopying manuscripts and, seeing our cylinder collection, he mentioned that he too had some cylinders, which the American Library of Congress had looked at without much interest. Could this be the Beregovsky collection? I jumped on the first available plane to Kiev, and discovered that it was."

Last week, in an oddly touching ceremony at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Adler and his patron Yehudi Menuhin took delivery of an inaugural CD from the Ukrainian ambassador, amid protestations of eternal friendship between Ukrainians and Jews.

Even leaving aside the awkward matter of past pogroms, the course of this love-affair has been bumpy, with Kiev raising endless obstacles to the digitalisation of the recordings Jerusalem wants. While Adler's aim is to make the archive available to scholars all over the world, Kiev's aim is to make a profit. As a Berlin-born Ost-Jude, Adler takes this sort of adversity for granted. "Whenever things seem discouraging, I listen again to these marvellous recordings. Then I am re-inspired."

To illustrate the point, he plays some examples: a Bartokian country song with driving rhythms; a dance sounding as if it is straight out of Fiddler on the Roof; an austerely beautiful liturgical chant. When this latter was recently broadcast on Haifa radio, he adds, a middle-aged Israeli rang in to say that he recognised the voice of the cantor. It was his own grandfather.

Jewish music is at present on a roll, but what exactly is it? Alex Knapp, the Joe Loss lecturer at City University, who next month moves to SOAS, offers a neat definition. "Cantillation. Music that traces its origins to the temple chant of 2,000 years ago." But then things get complicated, because the music has absorbed influences from every land where it has alighted. He traces its transmogrifications with the Ashkenazic Jews to America, the Sephardics round the Mediterranean, and Oriental Jews through Ethiopia, Yemen, and eastwards to China.

China? "Well, they're not one of the 57 officially recognised minorities, but there are still 600 Jews living in Kaifeng, and they still retain remnants of the orthodox tradition." Adler has several times lectured on Jewish music at Peking Conservatoire. "The Chinese find Jewish music very moving - they say it comes straight from the heart."

Adler is hot on Jewish music's influence on "daughter religions", as exemplified in Gregorian chant and the music of Islam, but he excludes from his researches most Western music composed by Jews, except when it reflects a conscious return to its roots. Examples? "Ernest Bloch, Arnold Schoenberg, Darius Milhaud - and Leonard Bernstein".

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MEANWHILE SOMETHING extraordinary is happening with that other piece of dinosaur technology, the piano roll. While Nimbus perseveres with its ambitious Grand Piano series, in which rolls cut by Twenties virtuosi are translated into sound by a robot pianist, Telarc has just unveiled the ultimate computerised answer. The problem with the robot is one of tonal balance; we get the architecture of the performances, but little sense of their original texture.

Computers have often been used to "translate" rolls, but never with anything like the finesse of Telarc's two Rachmaninov records, entitled A Window in Time. Wayne Stahnke, an aerospace engineer, apparently conceived his idea while working at Nasa; it involves a computer program containing a mathematical model of the pneumatic mechanism originally used to play the roll. But the results, played through a computerised Bosendorfer, banish all thoughts of science. Here at last is the airy magic the unsmiling maestro must have exuded in reality.

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ON THE other hand, if you don't mind the boxy acoustic you can get a very decent idea of Rachmaninov's disc recordings in Philips's Great Pianists of the 20th Century series. This month's releases include Jan Paderewski, Benno Moseiwitsch and the divine Clara Haskil, plus an Alfred Cortot record that really does stop me in my tracks. Launching into Schumann's turbulent Kreisleriana, the French guru shoots clean off the rails in bar six and stays off them, floundering desperately, for the whole of the first piece. This isn't great pianism; it's an absolute hoot. How can its inclusion possibly be justified?

Tom Deacon, whose brainchild this series is, sees no reason to apologise. "All right, it's a mess. But he was a great pianist, and his Schumann has a wonderful glow. I'd rather hear his wrong notes than any proficient pianist's right ones. We have every right to put into the edition someone who has his eye on poetry, rather than merely on notes. The saddest thing now is to be confronted with Maurizio Pollini in concert, because it has nothing to do with the Pollini we know from records. The pursuit of technical perfection is the curse of modern musical life." I can only agree.

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