SCHOENFIELD: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Four Motets. The Merchant and the Pauper (excerpts from Act II).
Robert Vernon, viola; Berlin Radio Symphony/Yoel Levi; BBC Singers/Avner Itai; University of Michigan Opera/Kenneth Kiesler.
Naxos 8.559418 (B) {DDD} TT: 57:41

Lubavitcher ecstasy. This is the second CD in Naxos's Milken Archives series which addresses the music of Paul Schoenfield, one of the best American composers now writing. Unlike many American Jewish composers, Schoenfield makes a big artistic deal of his Judaism and of Jewish culture in general. However, the whiff of neither ersatz piety nor exoticism clings to this music. It's above all the expression of a highly individual point of view. Schoenfield is a bit of a musical magpie, taking from all kinds of music and stirring the elements into an original brew -- a bit like Ives in that regard. Klezmer, cantorial chant, folk music, jazz, Broadway, and the classical tradition all bubble to the surface at some time or another, often within the same piece. The fact that all these elements link up -- convincingly so -- in Schoenfield's mind indicates an original sensibility, if nothing else. He has called himself a folk composer, but adds that folk musicians don't generally have the chops to play what he writes. In short, don't be surprised at anything that might turn up in one of his pieces.

The viola concerto seems relatively conventional, but only when you compare it to something like his Klezmer Rondos. The same magpie mentality still operates. For instance, you get the meditative music you expect from a viola concerto. However, you also get other stuff. The first movement, titled "Gan Tzippi," the name of the kindergarten in the kibbutz where Schoenfield lived for a time, comes from Schoenfield's memory of the songs the children sung that wafted from the school to his study. Some of these, he later discovered, were liturgical and Hassidic in origin. All of this gets transmuted, and we wind up with a mix of Bloch meditation (though more subdued than Bloch's own Suite for Viola), Bartók song and color, and Shostakovich dance. The slow second movement, "Soliloquy," begins appropriately enough with an extended viola solo. It sings deep as a river, but it's also the most conventional -- what you expect "Jewish" concert music to sound like, in the same emotional neighborhood as Bloch's "Nigun." You realize much later that Schoenfield has taken you on a profound, transformational journey in a very short amount of time. The finale, an energetic rondo inspired the story of King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, manically capers, much like the quicker parts of Shostakovich's cello concerti or the scherzo to Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, with here and there a kind of radiant rapture shining through.

The cream of North American choirs -- The Dale Warland Singers, The Phoenix Bach Choir, Chanticleer, and La Vie -- jointly commissioned the Four Motets, settings in Hebrew of verses from Psalm 86. The Psalm in general somberly asks for forgiveness, mercy, and the strength to do right. Schoenfield has written these under the obvious influence of Renaissance polyphony, particularly the Mannerist composers (the third motet sounds like Gesualdo could have composed it). The Mannerist vibe comes down to the expanded harmonic sense and the relative freedom of dissonance found in the music of the last hundred years, rather than from an interest in psychological extremes. These are pieces of tremendous craft and tremendous risk. First, the motets, all slow, run the danger of blending into each other. I worried about this but reasoned that you could perform them all separately, if you chose. On repeated listening, however, their differences became ever more distinct, to the point where I now think Schoenfield skirted the trap. Second, the polyphony is, if not thick, then full, and you can't really predict its course. A choir must crack some hard nuts. Nevertheless, the superb choral writing has the virtue of efficiency. You don't get the sense of extraneous notes thrown in, and the writing makes a good choir sound perhaps better than it is and a great choir as if it sang the music for which it was formed. As far as music based on Jewish liturgy goes, these works rank with Bloch, Bernstein, and Schoenberg. Incidentally, Holst made a lovely setting of this same psalm, available on Hyperion CDA66329.

Naxos fills out the program with excerpts from the second act of Schoenfield's opera The Merchant and the Pauper. The composer based the work's form on the medieval purimspiel -- essentially, a farce on the Purim story, about an abortive attempt to exterminate the Persian Jews. The duality, more than anything, of a farce on horrifying events seems to have caught Schoenfield's interest. The opera's actual plot, however, comes from the Hassidic reb Nahman of Bratslav, founder of the Bratslaver sect. At least some literary critics trace modern Jewish literature -- one thinks of I. B. Singer especially -- to the tales written by Nahman, who clothed (or, more accurately, hid) his theology in these stories. The plot reads like a fairy tale: A boy and girl promised to each other by their fathers -- a merchant and a pauper, respectively -- are kept apart when the pauper (who has in the meantime become not only rich, but emperor) goes back on his word, ruins the merchant and conspires to throw the son into the sea. The son escapes, but washes up on an abandoned island. Meanwhile the girl gets kidnapped by pirates. A storm maroons the girl on (just guess!) the exact same island as the son. From then on, it's just a matter of time before the happy ever after. Like almost all fairy tales, you can take the plot as seriously as you want. Some have seen it as a metaphor for the union of the Messiah with the Glory of God, thus giving Schoenfield the duality that attracted him to the purimspiel in the first place.

But all this is really beside the point. After all, an opera isn't primarily theology or even story (think about Il Trovatore's plot and not get a headache), but music, and the music is not only wonderful, but dramatic and even theatrical. Schoenfield blends such diverse elements as melodrama (spoken narration over music), choruses, the standard arias and love duets, and even an authentic Bratislaver tune with Yiddish lyrics and comes up with something both entertaining and profound. I emphasize, however, that the profundity for me lies not in the doctrine expressed, but in the music itself. For example, there's a terrific chorus of "wild animals" that sings the abundance of Nature and God -- richly sensuous. It reminds me a little of Rózsa's "Song of the Jungle" from The Jungle Book, and I mean a compliment. The love duets, often to verses from The Song of Songs, rise to ecstatic heights with no apparent strain. I want to see this opera live, something I can't say of too many. Only the fact of excerpts disappoints me, and, the facts of opera and opera recording in this country being what they are, I will probably die long before a complete recording comes out.

The performances of all the works are at least fine, and in one case stunning. Violist Robert Vernon has been the stalwart first chair of the Cleveland Orchestra for decades. He has the intonation and tonal strength of a first-class violinist. You don't hear any of the hesitancy, timbral dullness, and scratch of so many violists. The reading, led by Yoel Levi, penetrates many of the layers of the concerto, but it's still a first recording. One can imagine a better one, but this is a damn good place from which to start. The University of Michigan Opera Theater, directed by Kenneth Kiesler, operates at the level of a very capable regional opera company. The voices are better than I, for one, expected (as a former Ann Aborite), but the singers are all singing actors, with baritone Gary Moss standing out musically and dramatically as the merchant's son.

However, the BBC Singers, under Israeli choral legend Avner Itai, deliver something glorious. This is a world-class ensemble. In this country, only the Dale Warland Singers operated at their level, as far as I'm concerned. In fact, the BBC-ers may have become the best in the world among those groups not specializing in a particular repertoire. Have they gotten better? I have lots of recordings of these guys dating back to the early Seventies, and I can't remember them doing so well. They have it all: diction, clarity, rhythmic accuracy, phrasing, and a drop-dead gorgeous choral tone.
I consider this one of the outstanding releases, not only in the Naxos series, but for the year -- a major event, I think, in the reception of Schoenfield's music.

S.G.S. (May 2005)