Friday, July 17, 2015

Psalms from Schubert to Schoenberg

Christophorus CHR 77396 (2015)
Psalmus (T'hilim): Psalms in Christian Jewish Dialogue
(settings by Rheinberger, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Lewandowski, Rose, Mishory, Schoenberg)
Micahel Alber/Deutscher Kammerchor 

Released in May 2015 to coincide with celebrations marking the sixtieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between the former West Germany (Bundesrepublik) and the state of Israel, this fine disc offers an interesting program of choral psalm settings in Hebrew and German by Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic composers from the 19th to the 21st centuries, ranging stylistically from Schubert to Schoenberg,

The early to mid-19th century marked a period in the nascent Reform movement in which a growing spirit of ecumenicism and modernity brought great change to the musical life of the synagogue. Composers such as Solomon Sultzer (1804-1890), Jacques Hal√©vy, Samuel Naumbourg, and  Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), introduced “contemporary” harmonies and choral technique, while, on occasion, notable non-Jewish composers were invited to contribute works to this expanding liturgical repertory.

Indeed, I was intrigued and delighted to note the inclusion of Schubert’s a cappella setting of Psalm 92 in Hebrew (D 953). Though the work may well be considered something of a curiosity due to the unfamiliar (to most) language of the text, it is very much of a piece with Schubert’s typical, cheerfully lyrical, accessibly dramatic liturgical compositions for the Catholic church, and it’s wonderful to have this work in my collection at last.

Almost anyone who has ever attended a Friday-night Sabbath-eve service at a Reform temple has probably heard something by Louis Lewandowski; his L’cha dodi and Ma Tovu have been standards of the synagogue repertory for well over one-hundred-fifty years, and there’s little doubt as to why. Reading one of Lewandowski’s scores is like taking a crash course in 19th-century choral composition and style. The music is blithe, strikingly tuneful, and engaging, displaying the positive influences of Mendelssohn and Brahms at almost every turn. Along with the works of Solomon Sulzer, Lewandowski’s music has over the years assumed a kind of revered traditional “brought down from the mountain with Moses” status. Happily, this present disc includes Psalm settings by Lewandowski both in Hebrew and German. His marvelous Hebrew setting of Psalm 21 is particularly delightful and affecting.

Other highlights surely include the Drei Psalmen (Three Psalms) Op. 40 by the Catholic composer Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901), and the Psalm 92 by Alfred Rose (1955-1919), as well as Mendelssohn’s setting of Psalm 22, probably the most familiar piece in the program.

I was somewhat less impressed by the militantly dissonant, gimmick-heavy,  22-minute Wasserpsalm (Water Psalm) from 2014 by the Israeli pianist/composer Gilead Mishory (b. 1960). While the piece is certainly colorful notwithstanding its rather tired-sounding Schnitke-esque onomatopoeic vocal effects, and the performance, so far as I can surmise, adequately competent, it simply doesn’t seem to fit very well within the emotional or aural context of this program, and the creative choice to follow it up and close out the record with Schoenberg’s De Profundis feels, in retrospect, rather unfortunate. (Several subsequent hearings have done little to alter this opinion.)

Nonetheless, conductor Michael Alber has sculpted a polished, full, yet transparent sound ideal with his chorus. The singers seem well at ease with most of this repertory, shining especially in those tuneful, diatonically pleasing works of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Rheinberger, and Lewandowski. The recorded sound is superb.

A minor complaint: I must take issue with the Christophorus label’s packaging. The feather-light all-in-one booklet-style jewel-case makes no provision for the documentation insert, which floats around loose inside the cardboard wallet, thus making it liable to misplacement or loss. The use of ultra-light clear styrene plastic for the inner media tray does not bode well for long-term storage, as this type of material is prone to brittleness and hairline cracking, which are easily transferred to the disc surface over time.

Complaints aside, though, this disc will make a notable and worthy addition to any collection of choral liturgical music. Recommended.

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