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CLASSICAL  May 2005

CLASSICAL May 2005

Subject:

Milhaud's Service sacre

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 9 May 2005 08:49:34 -0500

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      Darius Milhaud
      Service sacre

*  Yaron Windmueller, baritone
*  Rabbi Rodney Mariner, reader
*  Prague Philharmonic Choir; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
Naxos 8.559409 Total time: 64:15

Summary for the Busy Executive: Nouvelle cuisine liturgique.

Ethnically, Jews divide into two large groups: the Ashkenazim, from
Russia and Central Europe; the Sephardim, from Spain and Italy.  Of
course, this distinction ignores a great deal of Jewry from Africa and
Asia, but in Europe and the Americas it tends to suffice.  Nevertheless,
even within these large groups one finds distinct cultures and traditions
of worship -- Provencale Jews especially noteworthy.  French Jews settled
in Provence after their expulsion from France (at the time, a separate
kingdom), and Aix-en-Provence over the following years became the cultural
capital of French Jews, much as New York functions today for American
Jews.  During World War II, the Vichy government -- almost as a cruel
joke, added to the horror -- used Aix-en-Provence as a deportation site
for Jews on their way to the death camps.

Like many Jews of his time, Darius Milhaud did not grow up in a
particularly religious household, nor did he practice Judaism.  Up
to the mid-Thirties, he identified himself primarily as a Frenchman,
rather than as a Jew.  His escape to the United States and the subsequent
war changed that attitude somewhat.  He sought ways to express himself
explicitly as both Frenchman and Jew.  Works as part of that identification
include the Suite francaise (1944), Suite provencale (1936), Le cheminee
du Roi Rene (1939), The Seven-Branched Candelabra (1951), David (1953),
and the Service sacre (1947).

While Judaism has a rich musical tradition, that tradition is mainly
the cantorial chants.  Religious concert music is essentially a
twentieth-century construct.  For a very long time, there were only two
works by major composers: Bloch's Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service) and
Milhaud's Service sacre.  The Bloch has always struck me as a tremendous
achievement, not only magnificent in itself, but as the invention of an
idiom for Jewish sacred music that tied the cantorial tradition to such
masterpieces as the Palestrina masses, the Bach Mass in b, and the
Beethoven Missa Solemnis.  Milhaud's only significant predecessor was
the Bloch service, also commissioned by the same congregation that put
Milhaud to work.  Consequently, Milhaud found himself relatively free
of the expectations set by tradition, since there was then no tradition
to speak of.  In any case, I doubt he would have imitated Bloch.  The
difficulty for Milhaud was to find out his basic material.  In a way,
he got lucky, because of who he was and where he came from.

One notices first about the Service sacre that it doesn't sound "Jewish."
In other words, it doesn't sound like Bloch or like any of the composers
who took off from Bloch.  Nor does it sound like one's idea of cantorial
chants.  Again, Milhaud uses the relatively unfamiliar liturgical material
of Provencale Jewry.  Oddly enough, it greatly resembles the non-liturgical
Milhaud.  Indeed, the composer's wife remarked that the traditional music
of the Provencale service runs throughout Milhaud's work, especially at
moments where the composer aims for transcendence.  Even so, the music
reminds one most strongly of Milhaud himself.  The "Ma tovu" ("how goodly
are thy tents, O Jacob") is Milhaud in his pastoral vein, sort of like
Le cheminee du Roi Rene on a larger -- though never inflated -- scale.
The "Sh'ma" ("hear, O Israel") and the "Mi khamokha" ("who is like Thee,
O Lord?") share the grandeur of the opening to the Suite provencale.
More important, the music shows none of the fall-off of much of Milhaud,
especially those pieces that he seemed to knock out between morning
coffee and lunch.  The service contains pretty much Milhaud at his
considerable best.  The texts and their order follow the Union Prayer
Book, at the time more or less the de facto standard of Reform Judaism.
Milhaud also lays out his forces in much the same way as Bloch, with
a chorus (representing the congregation), a soloist (representing the
cantor), a speaker (representing the rabbi), and of course the orchestra
(representing nobody in particular; the Orthodox service is usually sans
instruments).  However, as one might expect from a genre not old enough
to rank as a tradition, Milhaud also innovates, chiefly in having several
readings in the language of the country of performance accompanied by
music, among the loveliest in the entire setting.  Melodrama - the musical
accompaniment of spoken text - doesn't succeed very often.  Either the
music or the text becomes superfluous.  The latter is the basic rap
against Milhaud, but the music is so good, I simply don't mind.  Milhaud
makes no attempt to minutely mimic the sentiments in the texts, and the
music is beautifully spare.  No theatrical piety here, thank goodness.
The "S'u sh'arim" ("lift up your heads, ye gates"), for example, has the
boulevardier cheekiness of Milhaud's days as part of Les Six, much as
Poulenc's "Sanctus" does, from his Mass in G.  Both the Milhaud and the
Poulenc musical services give the overwhelming impression of personal,
individual spiritual testaments.  If Bloch aims for and achieves
universality through grandeur, Milhaud gets it through an attractive,
intelligent modesty.  His setting has the lightness and streamlining of
a Chagall window.  Both composers, however, express their deepest insides.

For me, the emotionally weightiest part of Milhaud's setting occurs at
the emotionally weightiest part of the service: the Mourner's Kaddish.
Milhaud provided two versions: one spoken by the rabbi; one sung by the
cantor.  Since I've never encountered a cantor singing this prayer (I've
always heard it spoken by rabbi and congregation), I'm given to wondering
why Milhaud (and Bloch, incidentally) set it.  The two versions are
musically quite different.  I admit I favor the spoken one.

I should mention that the traditional Sabbath service falls on Saturday
morning.  However, for most Reform congregations, the main service occurs
on Friday evening.  Since a Reform congregation gave the commission,
Milhaud provided additional settings of prayers appropriate for the
Friday.  Naxos claims that this is the premiere recording of the Friday
music.

More important, this performance, you should pardon the expression,
rocks.  It easily surpasses any of Milhaud's own (three, that I know
about).  Schwarz's reading energizes you.  I've known this work since
the Sixties, but never to anywhere near to the advantage it gets from
the present forces.  To tell the truth, Milhaud's accounts seemed muddy
and drugged.  Baritone Windmueller is simply a wonderful Lieder singer
- a voice that makes up in expressivity, clarity, and flexibility for
what it lacks in weight.  It's well suited to Schwarz's view of the score
- light and bright.  The chorus does very well indeed, and Rabbi Mariner
reads beautifully, without affectation or theatricality.  If the music
had been this good in my own temple, I probably would have gone more
often.

In short, this release counts as one of the glories of Naxos's American
Jewish Music series.

Steve Schwartz

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