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Classicalite's Five Best: Rosh Hashanah Musical Works

By James Inverne on Sep 06, 2013 12:53 AM EDT

A curious thing happened yesterday night in the middle of my family's traditional Rosh Hashanah dinner--Rosh Hashanah, as I'm sure you'll all remember from your Judaism classes, being the Jewish new year. There we were enjoying our apple and honey, challah bread and sugar, pomegranates and an extremely fine meal cooked by yours truly. And then our baby started crying, and he wouldn't stop. And then I put on Brahms' First Violin Sonata on Spotify, and he stopped. And he listened. And he loved it.

So Brahms isn't an especially appropriate composer for Rosh Hashanah. I mean, a justification, some link could always be found. And it persuaded him to be quiet so that we could all enjoy the hushed reverence of the occasion (er, well...). But it set me to thinking about what would be appropriate. Not for a baby, I mean, but for all of us.

So, here are my five best festival-appropriate classical works...

Max Bruch's Kol Nidrei, Op. 47

OK, so it's a little early for what is essentially a Yom Kippur text, but the penitential spirit of the Kol Nidrei feels very Rosh Hashanah-ey, which is all about repentance, alongside the honey. A sweet year is, we hope, in the offing, but by heck you have to pray for it and say sorry a lot. The best modern recording, soulful yet poised, is probably by English cellist Natalie Clein and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Ilan Volkov conducting (Hyperion). And the Ernst Bloch works on the disc, Schelomo, From Jewish Life and Voice in the Wilderness are fabulous, too. The best thing Clein has done on disc.

In the Fiddler's House

This isn't a single work, but a magnificent 1995 EMI documentary (and there are two accompanying audio albums) featuring Itzhak Perlman. The great violinist sets out on a quest to discover his musical heritage--Jewish klezmer music--in a journey that takes him from New York to Poland. An outpouring of joy, grief, nostalgia, innovation and often all at the same time, it is irresistible--one of the all-time great music documentaries. Directors Glenn DuBose and Don Lenzer have assembled some of the leading klezmer groups of the time, as well as other Jewish showbiz legends like Red Buttons and Fyvush Finkel. Dance, dance, dance...

Mahler, Symphony No. 1

Talking of klezmer, there's plenty in evidence in Mahler's "Titan" symphony. But the klezmer-inflected funeral dirge reminds us both of the joy and the terror of God and nature. And, indeed, mankind, which can be the most terrifying of all. No better message, surely, for Rosh Hashanah. There are of course dozens of fine recordings. You can't go wrong with Klaus Tennstedt or Bernard Haitink and I also love Georg Solti in the work, but it's Leonard Bernstein who understands this symphony better than anyone. His Vienna Philharmonic recording on DG is a must hear.

"Sabbath Prayer" from Fiddler On The Roof

Cliché, yes, undoubtedly. But it has become one because the Harnick and Bock musical is a masterpiece. It has been torn apart over the years, performed badly by countless ill-prepared or ill-equipped theater companies. Yet, listen to this number in the original Broadway cast recording (on RCA), with Zero Mostel incanting from his heart, his heritage and his people's history. Pure theatrical magic with a very real, very present spiritual dimension.

Sacred Bridges

I was going to recommend some music by the early Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, and was reminded of the beautiful (in many ways) album Sacred Bridges from The King's Singers and Sarband, on the Signum label. It includes Rossi's Hebreo Psalms, and in looking to our future, which is what one does at the new year, one must also remember one's past. But beyond that, this album is all about drawing musical connections between the three Abrahamic faiths. So, the Rossi nestles alongside music by Claude Goudimel, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Ali Ufkî (a.k.a. Wojciech Bobowski). There are harmonies in life that can emulate those in music, and if all of us at our various festivals took a moment to think about that, the new year would be that much sweeter.

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TagsClassicalite's Five Best, Rosh Hashanah, Bruch, Kol Neidre, Natalie Clein, Bloch, In the Fiddler's House, Itzhak Perlman, Mahler, Bernstein, Fiddler on the Roof, Sacred Bridges, The King's Singers

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