The First S'lihot: The Entire Midnight Service According to Orthodox and Traditional Ritual. Featuring music by Yossele Rosenblatt, Israel Schorr, Joshua Lind, and others. Benzion Miller, cantor; Schola Hebraica/Neil Levin.
Naxos 8.559428-29 () {DDD} TT: 116:50

Bringing it all back home, but whose home? Apparently, Naxos's American Jewish Music enterprise with the Milken Archives has near-encyclopedic aims. This double CD offers the mainstream culture a rare look at one strain of Jewish liturgical music.

My life as a practicing Jew has been embarrassingly short, and I haven't missed it. I've not set foot in a synagogue for at least thirty years. So this CD became a trip down memory lane, although I don't believe I've heard any of the music before. Rather, the performers reminded me of the best music in my temple. I should say, however, that most of what my congregation heard and sang pained the musician in me, such as he was -- dumb little hymns to tunes that would have embarrassed Jim and Tammy Faye. I never heard a cantor sing the traditional chants outside of a recording. I learned about them mainly from books.

The CD program explores music for cantor and chorus. Traditionally (at least in Europe), the chorus is soprano-alto-tenor-bass (SATB), with boy trebles rather than women in Orthodox services. The problem is that over the years, fewer and fewer boy trebles sang in temple, so much of the repertoire has been rearranged for adult male chorus (TTBB). I should say that many of the arrangements here haven't been published. Manuscripts are passed along the cantorial grapevine through mail, fax, and internet. Someone ought to do something about that. The idiom itself at its base reminds me of the music of the Eastern Orthodox church, which, if I consider the origins of most of it, makes a lot of sense to me. However, in contrast to, say, Russian Orthodox music, the Jewish tradition emphasizes the solo voice, the cantor, rather than the massed choir. Indeed, the choir functions mainly as support and contrast, often "laying out" as the cantor spins out improvisatory ornamentation of his line. The cantor is the musical star here. Furthermore, the melody usually takes on ornament and emphasizes intervals more characteristic of Semitic melos in general.

I think the music extraordinarily beautiful, but my judgment might come from my history. I asked my wife -- a person with no knowledge of this repertoire -- what she thought. She's someone who wants to like things, so she surprised me a bit when she said flat-out, "It's boring and repetitious." Fortunately, this opinion hasn't yet come between us. Still, it may likely indicate the music's appeal mainly to a minority. On the other hand, I find it a lot more interesting than Gregorian chant, which enjoys a boom now and then, so why not this?

The performances are as good as you're likely to hear. Neil Levin's Schola Hebraica produces a beautiful Männerchor sonority and supports the cantor with great musicianship. Cantor Benzion Miller belongs to a cantorial tradition I don't care for -- brilliant high register, a slightly pinched, nasal tone. However, I'm probably tilting at windmills if I expect things to change. It's a strong tradition, obviously, because congregations like it. Furthermore, within that line, Miller exercises restraint without ever losing his connection and becoming a Verdi tenor, for example.

My quibbles come down to the liner notes -- as far as I'm concerned, designed to keep outsiders out. Neil Levin provides notes about the liturgical significance of the texts, guaranteed to bore the pants off anyone not predisposed to interest. Better he should have spent time on delving into the music. Rabbi Morton M. Leifman translates the texts into Rabbispeak. He seems so nervous you will miss the nuances of the language, he writes what amounts to overkill. Compare his translation of "Einei Khol" to King James, for example:

The eyes of all look toward You,
and You provide all with food at the appropriate time and season.
You open Your hand and satisfy all the living
with great and good will.

The eyes of all wait upon thee;
and thou givest them their meat in due season.
Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every
living thing.

It's not the "thees" and "thines" that give the King James its power, but its specificity and compression ("meat" rather than "food," for example), its insistence on strong rhythms. It doesn't dilute meaning in hesitations and backtracks. Leifman's translation reads like a corporate report or like most Presidential speeches. It sucks the life out of the words. As a result, I don't know the target audience of this release. It's certainly not the curious among the general public, because it kindles no enthusiasm. I wonder whether anyone ever had the idea of getting this music out beyond the confines of the Orthodox CD-buying public.
Nevertheless, the performances here are very fine. Levin obviously knows what this music is about, despite his unwillingness to tell us in words. Benzion Miller, even without the greatest voice in the world, is still a wonderful, communicative singer, with an abundance of musical intelligence and taste.

S.G.S. (August 2005)