When the Rabbi Danced: Songs of Jewish Life from the Shtetl to the Resistance.
Counterpoint/Robert De Cormier
Albany TROY 676 (F) {DDD} TT: 64:12

ZUCKERMAN: The Year in Jewish Song.
The Goldene Keyte Singers.
Centaur CRC 2611 () {DDD} TT: 46:57

More from the world of Yiddish. These two collections of choral arrangements of traditional songs aim to present a rich picture of Yiddish culture. Both break down their programs into the following categories: shtetl, songs of the villages and ghettos of mainly eastern Europe; resistance, songs of Jewish anti-Nazi partisans; songs of the concentration camps or songs arranged by composers in those camps. Zuckerman adds a fifth category: Yiddish in America.

I come from a highly-assimilated generation. I know very little Yiddish (and less Hebrew). I can't even speak a complete Yiddish sentence, unless I'm quoting somebody. Even then, I probably get it wrong. I'm told that Yiddish enjoys somewhat of a revival among those who never spoke it "naturally," but I've not met these people. Certainly, the state of the language hasn't risen to its previous peak, when a landsman could have his pick of daily newspapers, browse through and buy novels and poetry collections from a bookstore, go to the theater, buy pop records, even see a movie, all in Yiddish.

Robert De Cormier has enjoyed a long career as a choral conductor and prolific arranger. He's been music director to such well-knowns as Belafonte and Peter, Paul, and Mary. He's also worked with Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade, James Levine, and Andre Previn. As an arranger, he's been drawn to the folk side of things, and an American choral singer has likely done at least a couple of his works. Counterpoint consists of eleven professional singers. Their tone is fine, but nothing special. For some numbers, instrumentalists join them. De Cormier's instrumental arrangements really don't add much, if anything. They remind me a bit of Fred Hellerman's arrangements for Theo Bikel -- something for an "easy listening" market. I greatly preferred the a cappella items. However, the CD also includes arrangements by Viktor Ullmann and Gideon Klein, both Jewish composers interred at Terezin and killed in the camps. These lift a good program to a great one. Ullmann, in particular, likes to weave in canonic textures with traditional melodies, much like Schoenberg's folk-song arrangements.

Mark Zuckerman studied with Roger Sessions, among others. His music alternates between the thorny and the accessible. However, his accessibility comes without patronization or compromise. The program here is wonderful stuff, all Zuckerman arrangements or even originals. The difference between Zuckerman and De Cormier is the difference between a good arranger and a very good composer. De Cormier tends to bury his personality in service of the tune. Zuckerman plays with the tune, and brilliantly. In addition to the pure melody and lyric, there's always something musically interesting going on to hook you. For example, Sholom Secunda -- the Yiddish theater's answer to Broadway's Irving Berlin -- is represented by his cross-over hit "Bay mir bistu sheyn." Zuckerman first gives us something close to what might have been heard in Yiddish circles and then launches into a luminous choral evocation of swing. Other out-of-the-ordinary cuts are "In kamf," from the American labor movement, sung at Jewish May Day rallies, and Berl Lapin's (1889-1952)Yiddish rendition of "America the Beautiful" ("Amerike di prekhtike"), an example of the new immigrants striving to become "real Americans." The Goldene Keyt ("golden key") Singers number four, and I doubt they're all Jewish, especially Mary Ellen Callahan and Hsi-Ling Chang, though you never know. At any rate, their Yiddish is far better than mine. It's harder to sing with three other singers than with eight others, because any little mistake you make stands out like a boil on your nose. The Goldene Keyt (named after the literary journal?) display the highest degree of musicianship, although their tone, like that of Counterpoint, isn't really special. Nevertheless, I enjoyed them far more, especially their intonation and their rhythmic snap.

I recommend both discs -- the De Cormier for the a cappella arrangements, the Zuckerman for all the arrangements and for the singers.

S.G.S. (October 2004)