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Milken Archive - Jewish String Quartets

Release Date: 01/17/2006 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8559451   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Darius MilhaudAbraham BinderRuth SchonthalJohn Zorn,   ... 
Performer:  Ilya KalerPerrin YangGeorge TaylorSteven Doane
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Juilliard String QuartetBochmann String QuartetBingham String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 18 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Volume 40 in the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music presents a collection of works written for string quartet, all of which are based on or derived from Jewish source material. Two of the composers, Milhaud and Secunda, are represented on previous releases in the series—the former by his Sacred Service (Naxos 8.559409), the latter by his song, Bay mir bistu sheyn , on Volume 2 of Yiddish Stage Songs (Naxos 8.559432). Abraham Wolf Binder (1895–1966) and Ruth Schonthal (b. 1924) have both had works reviewed in these pages before, but not in connection with the Milken project. John Zorn (b. 1953) has some three dozen Read more recordings listed, but I find no direct entries for him in Fanfare’s recent indexes.

Milhaud’s Études , written in 1973, had to wait nearly 30 years to be “discovered.” The piece came to light in 2000 during an interview with the composer’s widow in Paris, conducted as part of the Milken Archive’s oral history project. The work’s three movements are based on now largely extinct Jewish prayer melodies of France’s Provençal region, melodies that Milhaud would have heard in the local synagogues of his childhood. The first movement is redolent of a warm, lazy summer afternoon in the country. The second skips happily like children at play, and the third combines elements, both of music and mood, of the two preceding movements. A pleasant listen that taxes neither the listener nor the estimable Juilliard ensemble that tosses the piece off with the lightness of a fluffy cloud.

Binder’s Two Hassidic Moods (1934) remains in unpublished manuscript form. It begins in a vein similar to the Milhaud, but soon turns more animated, more modal, and more texturally dense. Pervasive throughout its second movement, titled “Dance,” is a near quotation of the melodic and rhythmic motive that drives the first movement of Beethoven’s op. 95 String Quartet. Whether it was conscious and intentional, or it arose naturally out of Binder’s attempt to capture the celebratory hand clapping and stomp dancing associated with ecstatic Hassidim, it is impossible to know. Neil Levin’s comprehensive notes do not mention it, but the reference is clearly there and easily heard.

Ruth Schonthal’s Third String Quartet, subtitled, “In Memoriam Holocaust,” (1997) is, for the most part, what one might expect from a work aimed at depicting such an unhappy and depressing subject—a long, lugubrious lament, interrupted by sudden furious flurries. Much of it is based on the near-Eastern exotic cliché of circular melismas around the augmented second interval that occurs between the lowered sixth and raised seventh degrees of the harmonic minor scale. It’s effective in small doses, but at nearly 19 minutes, it becomes somewhat oppressive and mind numbing. Perhaps that’s its point.

The two surprises and absolute delights on this program for me were Zorn’s Kol Nidre and Secunda’s C-Minor String Quartet. Having firmly established my credentials in these pages as an unapologetic hater of the noise pollution that passes for music in some avant-garde circles, I was quite unprepared for the Zorn. Here is a saxophonist and composer who has been described as a “fusionist,” though I think a more apt characterization might be “pantheist.” He has to his credit a large and wide-ranging catalog of works that includes everything from experimental film and stage productions to serious classical music. Zorn seems to embrace all 20th-century musical deities equally; jazz, rock, avant-gardism, minimalism, experimentalism, and post-modernism mix, mingle, and merge in free mêlée. Ordinarily, given my natural inclination to cynicism, I would attribute Zorn’s relatively recent discovery of his Judaism to just the latest phase in his pursuit to add yet another “ism” to his pantheon of musical gods, were it not for one inescapable fact: Kol Nidre (1996) is a piece of uncommonly exquisite beauty. Lasting just under six-and-a-half minutes, it conjures a Glass-like hypnotic spell based on intervals extracted from the well-known Yom Kippur melody that are then “continually transposed, extended, and developed.” The mood is appropriately reverential, mystical, and magical.

Sholom Secunda’s C-Minor String Quartet, likewise based on various Jewish liturgical melodies, was written in 1945. Here was a composer of real and serious talent. Though primarily known for his songs and work for the Jewish theater, Secunda produced a tone poem and a violin concerto, both recorded by the Milken Archive but not yet released as of this writing. The String Quartet is a very appealing piece—stylistically a neo-Classical, four-movement work in Romantic garb that borrows freely from a number or late 19th- and early 20th-century idioms. Its barely disguised Klezmer elements pervade much of its first and second movements. But most catchy and infectious of all is the scherzo-like third movement, which sounds uncannily like Haydn filtered through the lens of Prokofiev. In fact, this is precisely the kind of thing Prokofiev did in his “Classical” Symphony. The Bochmann Quartet captures the tongue-in-cheek, pixie-like character of this movement superbly.

Strong recommendations then for the Milhaud, Binder, Zorn, and Secunda. The Schonthal isn’t bad, just a bit long and repetitive.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

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Works on This Recording

Études for String Quartet, Op. 442 by Darius Milhaud
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Juilliard String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1973; USA 
Two Hassidic Moods by Abraham Binder
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bochmann String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934; USA 
Quartet for Strings no 3 "In Memoriam Holocaust" by Ruth Schonthal
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bingham String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1997; USA 
Kol Nidre by John Zorn
Performer:  Ilya Kaler (Violin), Perrin Yang (Violin), George Taylor (Viola),
Steven Doane (Cello)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Yehi Rotzon by Sholom Secunda
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bochmann String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 

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