Obituary: Louis Berkman

Louis Berkman, operatic and liturgical singer: born Cape Town 6 August 1934; died 29 June 1993.

LOUIS BERKMAN was the leading exponent of Jewish liturgical music in Britain. His very individual 'direct to the heart' quality of voice, supremely lyrical yet with impressive reserves of power, made him an ideal exponent of the 19th- and 20th-century Jewish liturgical texts to which he brought musical honesty, total commitment and sheer musical experience gained from the wider repertoire of lieder, oratorio and opera in which he excelled.

From early on, all signposts pointed to the opera stage: the Count in The Marriage of Figaro at the tender age of 18 for the Cape Town University Opera Society; his concert debut with the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Mackerras in 1959, singing operatic arias; then London and further study with John Hislop at the Guildhall School of Music and at the National School of Opera under Joan Cross, who recommended him for his first professional stage role as Dennis Feather in the world premiere of Nicholas Maw's opera One Man Show, conducted by Norman del Mar.

After a season with the English Opera Group under Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh and then in Belgium, France and Sweden an Italian scholarship enabled him to study with Tito Gobbi, Gina Cigna and Gino Bechi and to give public performances in Venice, Siena and on Italian Radio.

Berkman accepted an offer from the Israel National Opera as their principal baritone, and in two seasons with the company sang over 200 performances of a wide-ranging repertoire. In England he embarked on performances of oratorios, Lieder recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Purcell Room and St John's, Smith Square, concert appearances at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and at the Barbican; he sang with Kent Opera and at music festivals and also recorded an all-Beethoven Lieder disc.

Berkman also loved the music of the Jewish liturgy which had as it's source his early traditional Jewish upbringing and education in Cape Town. He had a vast collection of cantorial records and the cantorial singing style fascinated him. He himself made a study of the music of the Austrian Salomon Sulzer and the German Louis Lewandowsky, the 19th-century founders of the modern school of Jewish liturgical music, performing and recording their works with accuracy and sensitivity freshly revealing their true quality. In this he has helped to perpetuate a tradition which was extinguished with the destruction of the Jewish Communities of Germany and Austria.

In 1979 he made the definitive recording of Ernest Bloch's Sacred Service with the London Symphony Orchestra, a work which he performed many times. His recording for the BBC of Darius Milhaud's Service Sacre also helped to introduce this rare modern work to a wider public.

His imposing voice and his sheer musical authority uniquely fitted him to personify the aspirations of reconciliation between the Jewish and Christian communities in such memorable concerts as the performance in Canterbury Cathedral of Ronald Senator's deeply felt Kaddish for Terezint in 1986 and the historic commemoration concert in York Minster in 1990 on the 800th anniversary of the massacre of the Jews of York.

Always a natural performer, Louis Berkman was also passionately interested in the teaching of vocal technique and he felt privileged to be able to pass on the bel canto method and style of the older school of singers as they had been passed on to him.

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