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Sacred Service

Ernest Bloch conducting LPO & Choir, Marko Rothmuller (bass-baritone)
Rockport Records RR5001-2 44'20"
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Sacred Service
Central Synagogue Choir, New York, with Frederick Lechner (baritone) & Alexander D. Richardson (organ)/Lazar Weiner (conductor)
Rockport Records RR5005 60'20"
 Amazon UK  Amazon USA

These two re-issuess of settings of the Jewish Sabbath morning service date originally from 1949 (Bloch) and 1954 (Milhaud). Ernest Bloch was during his long life the most important composer to have brought Jewish music to the awareness of the wider music-loving public. I remember his setting from the 1950s, but find it disappointing now. There are passages which have his unique fingerprints, and the Tzur Yisroel sounds like authentic synagogue music, but other passages are rather generalised and bland. Sung in English, and broken English by the Cantor, it strikes the wrong note, and the balance is atrocious, the orchestra drowned out by Rothmuller's loud singing, recorded close. But it is, doubtless, inexpensive and has one inestimable version over its partner in Rockport's double release, provision of the words in English.

Darius Milhaud's setting is far more interesting. Its tone is encapsulated by the opening of his autobiography 'My happy life' - I am a Frenchman from Provence and by religion a Jew. Though beset by illhealth and pain, hobbling from wheelchair to sit at the rostrum when I saw him conduct at the Royal College of Music, he maintained a sunny disposition and attributed his contentment to compusive daily working (around 500 opus numbers!), a happy marriage and his Jewish faith, which engendered several compositions. Bringing to mind Haydn's Masses, this is no solemn service and the straightforward, accessible music is nonetheless idiomatic Milhaud throughout. The organ version has additional music for the Friday Evening Service, included here.

This is a very winning, though somewhat naïve performance, given with great simplicity and sincerity by the Central Synagogue, with two members of its Choir taking short solos and Frederich Lechner very affecting as the Cantor. The organ playing and choral singing are rather perfectly adequate, if a little home-spun, but give a good idea of how freshly this interesting work would come up if it were to be revived with small forces and an organ with the brighter tones with which baroque organs have now familiarised us. Balance is excellent and the whole scale is just right.

Originally composed for orchestral or organ accompaniment, I think it would be best left with the organ, but one that can suggest the sort of colour Milhaud brings to his orchestral music.

Paradoxically, and tantalisingly, no words at all are supplied in the thin leaflet, but the detailed track listing makes it easy to follow from the Bloch booklet! So you'd better purchase them both!


Peter Grahame Woolf


Peter  Grahame Wolf

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