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Miriams Song / Semjon Kalinowsky, Bella Kalinowska

Release Date: 06/30/2010 
Label:  Zuk Records   Catalog #: 332   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Helene LiebmannFanny Mendelssohn-HenselVally WeiglMinna Keal,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Duo Kalinowsky
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 55 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MIRIAM’S SONG: Music by Jewish Women Composers Semjon Kalinowsky (va); Bella Kalinowska (pn) ZUK 332 (55:23)

LIEBMANN Viola Sonata. HENSEL Adagio. WEIGL Old Time Burlesque. KEAL Ballade in f. FEIGIN Reflections on a Niggun. Read more STEIN-SCHNEIDER Nocturne. Serenata. Abendstimmung. Wiegenlied

Forgive me if the subtitle of this album— Music by Jewish Women Composers —reminded me of that scene in the 1980 slapstick comedy movie Airplane , where the stewardess comes down the aisle asking the passengers if they’d like something to read. An elderly lady requests something light, whereupon the stewardess offers her a leaflet titled Famous Jewish Sports Legends . I mean women overall represent a very small percentage of composers. And of that percentage, how many fall into the subset of Jewish? Perhaps a few more than make up the contents of this disc, but probably not many.

The CD’s track listing does not make it easy to decipher which of the works on the disc is a premiere recording and which has been arranged for viola and piano by Duo Kalinowsky; for every entry, with the exception of Minna Keal’s Ballade in F Minor, is flagged with the same asterisk that refers to either and/or both. Unfortunately, the booklet note sheds no light on the matter; it fails to tell us which works were arranged and if so, from what source, leaving one to make assumptions. In fact, the liner notes, while providing brief bios on each of the composers represented on the disc, say almost nothing about the music, so we’re left completely in the dark as to the origins and nature of these pieces. I find this a not very helpful way to advocate for composers whose names and works are virtually unknown.

Fanny Hensel (1805–47), of course, is the one familiar name here, though as sister to Felix Mendelssohn, her name is more commonly hyphenated as Mendelssohn-Hensel. Her Adagio presented here in a version for viola and piano happens to be a transcription of her Adagio in E Major for violin and piano, which may be heard in its original on a Bayer CD played by Marianne Boettcher and Ursula Trede-Boettcher, so at least I managed to identify the source of this, and one other piece on the disc. If you’re familiar with her brother’s Songs Without Words , Fanny’s Adagio falls loosely into that category; it’s a sweet, pretty thing, a bit wistful and nostalgic, perhaps, but without Felix’s ear for lyrical suppleness and harmonic ingenuity.

Hélène Liebmann is the earliest-born composer in this collection. Several biographical discrepancies, however, exist between details given in the booklet notes and information found on the Internet. The booklet gives her birth family name as Wiese, but three other sources say “née Riese.” Moreover, the booklet gives her dates as 1796–1835, but a German-language Internet bio cites the actual birth date as December 16, 1795. There is agreement among all sources that she was born in Berlin, but the biggest discrepancy of all is found in her death date. The booklet note and at least one Internet source agree on 1835, which would have made her only 39, but the cited German-language bio claims sometime after 1859. Records indicate that she and her husband were in Hamburg as late as that year, whence they made their way to Austria and Italy. It’s there that the trail goes cold. Another interesting tidbit is that when she married in 1814, Hélène and her Jewish husband, John Joseph Liebmann, converted to Christianity and adopted the surname Liebert, but like Mendelssohn, who also resisted acknowledging his Christianized name, Bartholdy, Hélène continued to publish her works under the name Liebmann. The newly married couple moved to Vienna and then to London, where Hélène took lessons from Ferdinand Ries.

Apparently, she had been recognized early on in Berlin as a child prodigy, making a name for herself as a brilliant pianist and publishing her Piano Sonata, op. 1, at the age of 15. Her published works include two sets of songs, several piano sonatas, two violin sonatas, two piano trios, and a piano quartet. The work by which she is represented on this disc, identified only as the Viola Sonata, op. 11, is not a viola sonata, but a transcription of her Grand Sonata for Cello and Piano, of which there exists a period-instrument recording by Sebastian Comberti and Maggie Cole on Cello Classics. Even the most acute-eared listener could be easily fooled into thinking he was listening to a lost, early Köchel number work by Mozart, who, needless to say, had already been dead 25 years or more before Liebmann wrote her piece.

About Vally Weigl (1894–1982), née Pieck, who is closer to our own time, there appear to be no biographical discrepancies. She was born in Vienna, studied composition under Karl Weigl, and married him in 1921. When the National Socialists came to power in 1938, the couple emigrated with their son to the U.S. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts enabled Weigl to compose a number of works, at least one of which, New England Suite , has gained some currency on record. She continued her studies at Columbia University, earning a master’s degree with a special focus in music therapy. This led to her becoming chief medical therapist at New York Medical College. She also taught at Roosevelt Cerebral Palsy School and directed research projects at Mount Sinai Hospital’s psychiatric division and the Hebrew Home for the Aged.

Weigl’s work catalog is quite extensive; it includes a number of orchestral and instrumental works, as well as a considerable volume of songs and vocal numbers. The Old Time Burlesque included on this disc, written in 1937, was originally conceived for either cello or trombone. It seems to sit comfortably on viola as heard here. The piece could pass for something by Shostakovich. It’s one of those slightly drunken, off-kilter, Russian-Polish-Jewish-shtetl-sounding dances that manages to wag its tongue at you as it wiggles its tush.

Judging from the brevity of the booklet’s biographical sketch of Lena Stein-Schneider (1874–1958) and a virtual gag order on any useful information about her at all on the Internet, I have to conclude that she is the CD’s mystery woman. Once again, a death-date discrepancy crops up: The booklet gives it as 1959, but a French-language Internet article titled “Musique à Terezin” includes Stein-Schneider among the composers and musicians who were imprisoned at the Terezin-Auschwitz concentration camp, and gives her exact date of death as June 17, 1958. This is just one more example of the slipshod research that went into the booklet’s preparation. If I could find this bit of information on the Internet in 30 seconds, surely Werner Bodendorff, the booklet’s author, could have found it just as easily.

Regardless of whether Stein-Schneider died in 1958 or 1959, it’s obvious from this late date that she didn’t die in the camp at the hands of the Nazis. She was liberated in 1945, moved temporarily to Switzerland, and then back to Berlin—west or east we’re not told. Nor is there a single word about the four pieces by which she is represented on the disc, or anything else she may have written. But since the four pieces here bear opus numbers in the 50s, we may surmise that her output was of respectable volume. I find only one entry for her on record, an Avinu Malkenu , included in a collection of cantorial works on the Ars Produktion label.

All four numbers— Nocturne, Serenata, Abendstimmung , and Wiegenlied —are lovely, lyrical salon pieces that could have been written a hundred years earlier by Schumann. I have no idea what the rest of Stein-Schneider’s music sounds like, but based on the examples here, I’d have to say that she had a rare melodic gift. These are very beautiful pieces.

Long-lived Minna Keal (1909–99) was born Minnie Nerenstein to Yiddish-speaking Jewish-Russian immigrants in the East End of London, where her parents ran a Hebrew publishing and book selling business. With little to no early formal musical training, she managed to get accepted as a student at the Royal Academy of Music, where she ended up studying composition with William Alwyn. Still a student, Keal wrote the Ballade in F Minor for Viola and Piano, a work much admired by famed violist Lionel Tertis, and it won her an Elizabeth Stokes grant.

From here her story takes an unusual turn. Her father had died while Minna was still quite young, and her mother, needing help in running the family business, persuaded her to abandon the dream of a career in music. Heartbroken, Minna sacrificed the one thing she wanted most, turning her back on composition for the next 46 years. Her first marriage, to a Barnet Samuel, produced a son but ended in divorce. The events unfolding in Nazi Germany and the outbreak of the Second World War politicized her. She joined the Communist Party and became heavily involved in the Labor movement, which is where she met her second husband, Bill Keal. It wasn’t until 1973 that Minna resumed composing, but by now her early idols—Elgar, Bruch, Bridge, and Debussy—were yesterday’s news. She had to learn a whole new language, one that had been shaped by Bartók, Shostakovich, Stravinksy, and Schoenberg. These were her new models, and with her newfound voice she continued to compose right up to the end. Her method was measured and meticulous, so that her output is not large, but a cello concerto completed in 1994 and recorded by Alexander Baillie for NMC brought her belated recognition.

As early a composition as Keal’s Ballade is—it was written in 1927—it is not a throwback to an earlier time; its style is in keeping with the music of Bridge, which Keal admired, and the English pastoralists of the day, such as Moeran and Finzi. It’s no wonder that Tertis was enamored of the piece; it’s a viola player’s dream, centered largely in the instrument’s most expressive and seductive midrange, and given a flowing melismatic line over a richly appointed piano part.

Last but not least we come to Latvia-born Sarah Feigin (b. 1928), who studied piano and composition at the Riga Conservatory. In 1972, she settled in Israel and a year later founded a music conservatory there. Her compositions draw heavily on Jewish folk music. The Hebrew word niggun is commonly translated into English as a “humming tune.” But technically, it denotes the fixed trope or cantillation set forth by special symbols designated for the chanting of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. More loosely, the term has come to refer to any traditional, though not 100-percent fixed, melodic modality—I refer to it as a melos —learned and practiced by cantors in the recitation of certain prayers.

Unfortunately, I don’t recognize the niggun on which Feigin based her Reflections on a Niggun , but taking the title of the piece literally, I assume it to be based on an actual existing melody rather than it being an abstraction of the idea based on a composer-invented one.

These are the sort of important details one wishes to know about the works on this disc that are so woefully absent from the notes. Almost all of these composers are practically anonymous as far as the general listener is concerned. That is why I’ve taken so much time (and the space) to tell you as much about these composers and these pieces as I was able to learn on my own, for there is some truly wonderful and beautiful music on this CD that is worth hearing and knowing.

Despite my carping about the inadequate notes, my criticism does not extend to the players—Semjon Kalinowsky and Bella Kalinowska—both of whom are absolutely superb. The point may have been to showcase Jewish women composers, but in the end, what the disc showcases is some extraordinary music performed by two exceptionally fine musicians. Very strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Grand sonata for cello & piano, Op. 11 by Helene Liebmann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Duo Kalinowsky
Date of Recording: 02/2009 
Venue:  Stadthaus Bargteheide, Germany 
Length: 20 Minutes 11 Secs. 
Adagio for violin & piano by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Duo Kalinowsky
Period: Romantic 
Date of Recording: 02/2009 
Venue:  Stadthaus Bargteheide, Germany 
Length: 3 Minutes 50 Secs. 
Old Time Burlesque, for viola & piano by Vally Weigl
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Duo Kalinowsky
Written: 1937 
Date of Recording: 02/2009 
Venue:  Stadthaus Bargteheide, Germany 
Length: 5 Minutes 16 Secs. 
Ballade in F minor, for viola & piano by Minna Keal
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Duo Kalinowsky
Written: 1927 
Date of Recording: 02/2009 
Venue:  Stadthaus Bargteheide, Germany 
Length: 9 Minutes 48 Secs. 
Reflection on a Niggun, for viola & piano by Sarah Feigin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Duo Kalinowsky
Written: 1999 
Date of Recording: 02/2009 
Venue:  Stadthaus Bargteheide, Germany 
Length: 6 Minutes 10 Secs. 
Nocturne, for viola & piano, Op. 53 by Lena Stein-Schneider
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Duo Kalinowsky
Date of Recording: 02/2009 
Venue:  Stadthaus Bargteheide, Germany 
Length: 2 Minutes 44 Secs. 
Serenata, for viola & piano, Op. 56 by Lena Stein-Schneider
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Duo Kalinowsky
Date of Recording: 02/2009 
Venue:  Stadthaus Bargteheide, Germany 
Length: 2 Minutes 10 Secs. 
Abendstimmung, for viola & piano, Op. 57 by Lena Stein-Schneider
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Duo Kalinowsky
Date of Recording: 02/2009 
Venue:  Stadthaus Bargteheide, Germany 
Length: 2 Minutes 21 Secs. 
Wiegenlied, , for viola & piano, Op. 55 by Lena Stein-Schneider
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Duo Kalinowsky
Date of Recording: 02/2009 
Venue:  Stadthaus Bargteheide, Germany 
Length: 2 Minutes 5 Secs. 

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