PERLMAN PLAYS KLEZMER. Itzhak Perlman (violin); Brave Old World; The Klezmatics; The Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra; Kapelye; The Klezmer Conservatory Band. With bonus DVD "In the Fiddler's House." Itzhak Perlman; Fyvush Finkel; Leopold Kozlowski; Brave Old World Kapelye; The Klezmatics; The Klezmer Conservatory Band.
EMI 2 07094 2 (F) (DDD) TT: 148:45 (1 CD/1 DVD).

Mazel tov! A wonderfully intelligent and entertaining set. Perlman certainly needs no encomium to his fiddle playing from me. I ask the sole question whether these discs are really necessary. I'm no fan of crossover, mostly because it's done so badly. I wish Yo Yo Ma would get off the damn Silk Road and head for the boulevards of New York, Paris, and London once again. Celtic Woman has upped my blood sugar to dangerous levels. If I never again hear Bryn Terfel's plummy "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," I will count myself blessed.

In a way, both Perlman and Ma strike me as victims of mid-life musical crises. After all, there's only so many times you can record the same concerti over and over before even you get sick of it. Much as I like Perlman's Tchaikovsky or Ma's Dvorák, do I really want them to repeat themselves? Both Perlman and Ma have in their live recitals, at any rate, branched out into more adventurous territory, but the big recording companies, especially these days, tend to be quite timid. I doubt whether you'll see a Perlman recording of Messiaen or Lutoslawski or Sessions, although I know for a fact he's got at least one of them in his repertoire. The crossover stuff may represent Perlman's and Ma's attempts to keep their brains active.

At any rate, these CDs give you a lively good time. For those who may not know, klezmer literally means "musical instrument." The meaning extends to the music played, particularly the music of Central and Eastern European Jews. Like Yiddish itself, klezmer takes on traits of its host country. Russian klezmer sounds like Russian gypsy folk music. Furthermore, Jews emigrated. American klezmer took on the sounds of jazz. Argentinean klezmer often dances to a samba. It became in fact more popular outside of Europe, mainly due to the Holocaust. By the time I was a lad, however, it was on the fringes of my consciousness and seemed on its last legs -- like Yiddish itself, a vestige of a nearly-vanished past, a sepia photograph on the wall of your grandparents when they were young. A whole, rich culture -- music, books, poetry, plays, even film -- seemed to fade before my eyes. Moony Weisenfreund morphed into Paul Muni. Clarinetist great Dave Tarras disappeared in Benny Goodman's shadow.

Somehow, this began to turn around. Young people became interested, listening to records and seeking out the old-timers. They have generated a tremendous energy around this music once again. Perlman works with some of the best of the new guys. The album is both taut and fun. Klezmer is also called freilech music, and "freilech" means "joyful." This is music to dance to, to clap to, even to weep to, for the sheer pleasure of it.

As a bonus, you get a free DVD, In the Fiddler's House, a documentary of klezmer and Perlman's encounter with it. It features not only Perlman and all the performers on the CDs, but Red Buttons and Fyvush Finkel reminiscing about the old days. I caught this on TV, oddly enough, and loved it, a bit of lagniappe, a kiss on the cheek. Fyvush Finkel singing and selling "Ich bin a Boarder bay mayn Vayb" alone is worth the price of the set. Do you have to be Jewish to like this? I'm not particularly Jewish, and what's not to like?

S.G.S. (January 2009)