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Audiophile Audition


THE YIDDISH CABARET—Korngold: String Quartet No. 2—Schulhoff: Five Pieces for String Quartet—Desyatnikov: 5 Songs for Voice and String Quartet—Jerusalem Quartet—Hila Baggio, soprano—harmonia mundi HMM 902631, 59’50, *****

by Robert Moon

This chamber music on this album recreates the Jewish influence on cabaret music of the Weimar republic. It’s the music of the Yiddish culture of ‘lowbrow’ subjects and irony that was lost with the eradication of the Jewish population during the Nazi holocaust in Poland. Before the War, Poland was center of a thriving Jewish culture (art, music, film, and theatre). The Yiddish culture of the Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe transformed vaudeville (American musical theatre) into Broadway and helped to define film as a province of Hollywood.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was a Viennese child prodigy who came America in 1934 to write the music for the film, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He returned to Europe in 1937, but settled in America a few months later, which saved his life. He won two Academy Awards for his film scores here, but was rejected by Europe’s musical establishment when he returned after the War. The String Quartet No. 2 was premiered in 1934, just before he left for America. It is full of the warmth of the rural Viennese countryside, the bustle of a lively café conversation and the grace and wit of a village waltz. The outlier is the “Larghetto,” a sad, beautiful and chromatic longing for a past world that’s about to be destroyed. The Jerusalem Quartet’s interpretation is lush, sensuous and refined—a perfect encapsulation of the Viennese masters of Korngold’s heritage—Mahler, Zemlinsky and Richard Strauss.

Erwin Schulhoff’s (1894-1942) early music showed influences from Dvorak, Debussy, Scriabin and Strauss. After a stint in the Australian army in World War I, he became influenced by Schoenberg, the Second Viennese School and jazz. He wrote symphonies, worked in radio and as a pianist in theatre productions during the interwar period. Schulhoff became a Russian citizen but was imprisoned by the Germans before he could emigrate. He died of tuberculosis in the Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942. His Five Pieces for String Quartet follows the structure of a Baroque dance suite. The first is a sinister and moody waltz; the second an ominous and off-kilter version of a serenade; the third a feisty Czech folk-dance; the fourth a doleful and sultry tango and the fifth a whirlwind, driving tarantella. The Jerusalem Quartet expresses the atmosphere of each movement with clarity and precision.

The Five Songs for Voice and String Quartet is based on Yiddish songs that were performed in Warsaw and Lodz between the Wars. These cabaret songs reflect the culture and lives of Jews who lived in in that period and they influenced music in Europe and America. Composer Leonid Desyatnikov (b. 1955) has “freely transcribed” these songs. They describe the “lowbrow” life of these Jews, “a brazen, talented culture full of self-irony and latent despair.” There’s a saucy view of Warsaw, an American parody of a house of prostitution, two songs about street thieves and a conversation between a man and a woman who dream of a happy urban life. These songs are funny, sarcastic and sad. Soprano Hila Baggio is a superb interpreter. The arrangements for string quartet sound authentic, given their pedigree.

This is a superbly performed sample of the Yiddish Cabaret music that was lost after World War 2 and left its mark on the music of Broadway and the films of Hollywood.

June 18, 2019

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