Notes and Editorial Reviews
FOREVER TO REMEMBER: Music to the Lyrics of Poet Yaakov Barzilai
Sharon Rostorf-Zamir (sop); Hagai Yodan (pn); Orit Orbach (cl);
Evgenia Ephstein (vn);
Dudu Carmel (ob)
ROMÉO 7277 (78:55
Forever to Remember.
My Father Will No Longer Bless the Bread.
Pictures from the Private Collection of God.
This is not a CD you’d put on to perk up your mood. In fact, it’s downright depressing, but then it’s meant to be. Hungarian-born poet, novelist, and lecturer Yaakov Barzilai moved to Israel in 1949, a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The disc at hand offers a sampling of his poems set to music by four Israeli composers.
A transplant to the U.S., Israeli-born Sharon Farber (b. 1968) has earned a number of awards for her concert music, but she has particularly distinguished herself as a composer of music for film and television. Heard here is Farber’s setting of Barzilai’s poem
Forever to Remember
, from which the album takes its title. The poem is in three parts, “Forever to Remember,” “Also the Ashes,” and “I Turned a Leaf,” which divide naturally into a mini cycle of three songs, the last two at four minutes each nicely balancing the first at over nine minutes in length.
Farber scores the instrumental accompaniments to the songs for a chamber ensemble, which, in addition to piano, calls for clarinet, violin, and cello, expressively played by Hagai Yodan, Orit Orbach, and Evgenia Ephstein. The style is modernistic but fundamentally tonal, while the vocal line mixes dramatic declamatory outbursts with more lyrical melismatic cantillation. Barzilai’s verses paint images, horrifying and haunting, of horse-drawn carts laden with corpses, and on tracks 4 and 5, following the songs, Barzilai himself is heard reading the verses to “Also the Ashes,” and “I Turned a Leaf.”
Eugene Levitas (b.1972), unlike Farber, as far as I’ve been able to determine, has remained in Israel and built a successful career there as composer and arranger fluent in classical, contemporary, jazz, electronic, and even pop-rock music. Like Farber, Levitas has written works for the concert stage as well as for television and film.
is a collection of songs set to verses taken from five short single-verse Barzilai poems, each of which reminds us of absence and loss. An obbligato cello joins the piano in accompanying the vocal part. Levitas’s settings, in keeping with the texts, are not quite as stark or graphically depictive as Farber’s; the music is modern but in a sort of populist, neoromantic vein.
Reversing the order of things, Barzilai next reads the last of the four poems, “My Father Will No Longer Bless the Bread,” that make up Aharon Harlap’s settings of his song cycle of the same name. Harlap (b. 1941) is a native of Canada but immigrated to Israel in 1964. He’s well known there as a conductor who appears regularly with the country’s leading orchestras, and as a composer whose viola concerto was dedicated to and premiered by celebrated violist Rivka Golani.
For the first song of this cycle, Harlap coincidentally happens to set the same Barzilai poem, “Forever to Remember,” that opens Sharon Farber’s three-song cycle. It’s instructive to compare the two settings. Harlap makes do with just piano for his instrumental accompaniment, and his vocal line is more conjunct with fewer declamatory interjections. There’s also a recurring rhythmic motif in the piano part, which Harlap repeats sequentially beginning on different scale degrees, and which has a unifying effect on the piece. Farber’s treatment is by no means formless, but it’s freer, making it a bit more difficult to follow on an initial hearing. Harlap’s approach gives the impression of being more structured.
I had to wonder, though, what the second song in the cycle, “Smell of Manure,” held in store. Not what I thought. It’s a mini-masterpiece of mocking, ironic incongruity between music and text that even Mahler couldn’t have bested; neither could Shostakovich or Prokofiev. To a jazzy, circus-like accompaniment, the story is told of a boy who trips and falls into a pile of manure. When he cries, a kind uncle reassures him there’s no reason to cry because he’s on his way to the showers anyway. The reference, which needs no explanation, is all the more chilling for the circus music accompaniment and for the unnerving ending.
Harlap is also the composer of the five-song cycle
Pictures from the Private Collection of God
. Here he adds an oboe to the piano accompaniment. These songs are in a basically romantic style expanded by an updated lexicon of 20th-century techniques. All five songs are slow and less contrasted than those in
My Father Will No Longer Bless the Bread
. They convey a sense of poignant nostalgia and sorrow too painful to remember yet too dangerous ever to forget.
Stella Lerner (b.1955) is a native of Russia who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s. Her background is in special education and music therapy. As a composer, her efforts have been mainly in the genre of song. Her contribution to this collection of Barzilai’s Shoah poems is the single song
. The text describes a scene of desolation and abandonment, which in Lerner’s more conservatively styled setting is a bit reminiscent of some of Shostakovich’s songs.
I’ve yet to mention soprano Sharon Rostof-Zamir, who sings every one of these songs with penetrating insight and artistry. Her voice makes mellifluous music of a language, Hebrew, that is not naturally musical; her intonation is flawless; her vibrato even and controlled; and her diction clear enough to transcribe the words from the recording. Pianist Hagai Yodan, who also plays in every piece on the disc, makes for a fully engaged partner to Rostof-Zamir and a sensitive reader of these scores.
This is a beautifully produced album with thick, glossy stock used for its thick booklet, informative notes, full Hebrew texts and English translations, and even an endpage of credits identifying the translators of the poems. If you’re up for shedding some tears, these poems and songs are guaranteed to open the floodgates. Urgently recommended; maybe even a Want List candidate.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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