MILHAUD: Service Sacré (Sabbath Morning Service with additional prayers for Friday evening).
Yaron Windmueller, baritone; Rabbi Rodney Mariner, reader; Prague Philharmonic Choir; Czech Philharmonic Orch/Gerard Schwarz, cond.
NAXOS 8.559409 (B) (DDD) TT: 64:15

Nouvelle cuisine liturgique. Ethnically, Jews divide into two large groups: the Ashkenazim, from Russia and Central Europe; the Sephardim, from Spain and Italy. Of course, this distinction ignores a great deal of Jewry from Africa and Asia, but in Europe and the Americas it tends to suffice. Nevertheless, even within these large groups one finds distinct cultures and traditions of worship -- Provençale Jews especially noteworthy. French Jews settled in Provence after their expulsion from France (at the time, a separate kingdom), and Aix-en-Provence over the following years became the cultural capital of French Jews, much as New York functions today for American Jews. During World War II, the Vichy government -- almost as a cruel joke, added to the horror -- used Aix-en-Provence as a deportation site for Jews on their way to the death camps.

Like many Jews of his time, Darius Milhaud did not grow up in a particularly religious household, nor did he practice Judaism. Up to the mid-Thirties, he identified himself primarily as a Frenchman, rather than as a Jew. His escape to the United States and the subsequent war changed that attitude somewhat. He sought ways to express himself explicitly as both Frenchman and Jew. Works as part of that identification include the Suite française (1944), Suite provençale (1936), Le cheminée du Roi René (1939), The Seven-Branched Candelabra (1951), David (1953), and the Service sacré (1947).

While Judaism has a rich musical tradition, that tradition is mainly the cantorial chants. Religious concert music is essentially a twentieth-century construct. For a very long time, there were only two works by major composers: Bloch's Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service) and Milhaud's Service sacré. The Bloch has always struck me as a tremendous achievement, not only magnificent in itself, but as the invention of an idiom for Jewish sacred music that tied the cantorial tradition to such masterpieces as the Palestrina masses, the Bach Mass in b, and the Beethoven Missa Solemnis. Milhaud's only significant predecessor was the Bloch service, also commissioned by the same congregation that put Milhaud to work. Consequently, Milhaud found himself relatively free of the expectations set by tradition, since there was then no tradition to speak of. In any case, I doubt he would have imitated Bloch. The difficulty for Milhaud was to find out his basic material. In a way, he got lucky, because of who he was and where he came from.

One notices first about the Service sacré that it doesn't sound "Jewish." In other words, it doesn't sound like Bloch or like any of the composers who took off from Bloch. Nor does it sound like one's idea of cantorial chants. Again, Milhaud uses the relatively unfamiliar liturgical material of Provençale Jewry. Oddly enough, it greatly resembles the non-liturgical Milhaud. Indeed, the composer's wife remarked that the traditional music of the Provençale service runs throughout Milhaud's work, especially at moments where the composer aims for transcendence. Even so, the music reminds one most strongly of Milhaud himself. The "Ma tovu" ("how goodly are thy tents, O Jacob") is Milhaud in his pastoral vein, sort of like Le cheminée du Roi René on a larger -- though never inflated -- scale. The "Sh'ma" ("hear, O Israel") and the "Mi khamokha" ("who is like Thee, O Lord?") share the grandeur of the opening to the Suite provençale. More important, the music shows none of the fall-off of much of Milhaud, especially those pieces that he seemed to knock out between morning coffee and lunch. The service contains pretty much Milhaud at his considerable best. The texts and their order follow the Union Prayer Book, at the time more or less the de facto standard of Reform Judaism. Milhaud also lays out his forces in much the same way as Bloch, with a chorus (representing the congregation), a soloist (representing the cantor), a speaker (representing the rabbi), and of course the orchestra (representing nobody in particular; the Orthodox service is usually sans instruments). However, as one might expect from a genre not old enough to rank as a tradition, Milhaud also innovates, chiefly in having several readings in the language of the country of performance accompanied by music, among the loveliest in the entire setting. Melodrama - the musical accompaniment of spoken text - doesn't succeed very often. Either the music or the text becomes superfluous. The latter is the basic rap against Milhaud, but the music is so good, I simply don't mind. Milhaud makes no attempt to minutely mimic the sentiments in the texts, and the music is beautifully spare. No theatrical piety here, thank goodness. The "S'u sh'arim" ("lift up your heads, ye gates"), for example, has the boulevardier cheekiness of Milhaud's days as part of Les Six, much as Poulenc's "Sanctus" does, from his Mass in G. Both the Milhaud and the Poulenc musical services give the overwhelming impression of personal, individual spiritual testaments. If Bloch aims for and achieves universality through grandeur, Milhaud gets it through an attractive, intelligent modesty. His setting has the lightness and streamlining of a Chagall window. Both composers, however, express their deepest insides.

For me, the emotionally weightiest part of Milhaud's setting occurs at the emotionally weightiest part of the service: the Mourner's Kaddish. Milhaud provided two versions: one spoken by the rabbi; one sung by the cantor. Since I've never encountered a cantor singing this prayer (I've always heard it spoken by rabbi and congregation), I'm given to wondering why Milhaud (and Bloch, incidentally) set it. The two versions are musically quite different. I admit I favor the spoken one.

I should mention that the traditional Sabbath service falls on Saturday morning. However, for most Reform congregations, the main service occurs on Friday evening. Since a Reform congregation gave the commission, Milhaud provided additional settings of prayers appropriate for the Friday. Naxos claims that this is the premiere recording of the Friday music.

More important, this performance, you should pardon the expression, rocks. It easily surpasses any of Milhaud's own (three, that I know about). Schwarz's reading energizes you. I've known this work since the Sixties, but never to anywhere near to the advantage it gets from the present forces. To tell the truth, Milhaud's accounts seemed muddy and drugged. Baritone Windmueller is simply a wonderful Lieder singer — a voice that makes up in expressivity, clarity, and flexibility for what it lacks in weight. It's well suited to Schwarz's view of the score — light and bright. The chorus does very well indeed, and Rabbi Mariner reads beautifully, without affectation or theatricality. If the music had been this good in my own temple, I probably would have gone more often.
In short, this release counts as one of the glories of Naxos's American Jewish Music series.

S.G.S. (March 2005)