The Leipzig Synagogue Choir on tour in Israel – November 2017

The Leipziger Synagogalchor (Leipzig Synagogue Choir), a German ensemble that performs exclusively Jewish choral music, was established in 1962 by Cantor Werner Sander. Following Sander’s death, the ensemble’s direction was taken over by Helmut Klotz in 1972. Since 2012, Ludwig Böhme has served as the choir’s musical director. The recipient of several awards, the choir records and performs widely, promoting international- and interreligious dialogue. Much of the choir’s repertoire consists of the 19th century liturgical music that was sung in German synagogues – for choir and soloists, either a-cappella or with keyboard accompaniment – and pronounced in the particular Ashkenazi manner used by German Jewry up to the Holocaust. Today, some arrangements of Yiddish songs also make up the repertoire. What is totally unique about this ensemble is that conductor and members, none of whom belong to the Jewish faith, are keeping this important tradition alive and presenting it to audiences in Europe and further afield. This writer attended the concert held at the Moreshet Yisrael Synagogue, Jerusalem, on November 13th 2017, where the Leipzig choir was hosted by the Jerusalem Meitar Choir (director: Ido Marco). Soloists from Germany were Dorothea Wagner (soprano), Falk Hoffmann (tenor), Tilmann Löser (piano) and Reinhard Riedel (violin). Both choirs joined to open the event with Louis Lewandowski’s setting of “Ma Tovu” (How Great are thy tents), with the Leipzig Synagogalchor (and soloists) performing more of the much-loved Lewandowski songs; their sensitive singing of the soul-searching “Enosh” text from the Day of Atonement memorial service was especially expressive and moving: “As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.” (Psalm 103).
Italian Baroque composer Carlo Grossi’s “Cantata Ebraica in Dialogo” for soloist and choir, in the style of Monteverdi but to texts in Hebrew, is set for soloist, 4 part choir, and basso continuo. It forms a musical dialogue between soloist and choir. Dorothea Wagner’s performance of the virtuosic solo part was lively and informed, with some tasteful ornamentation in her finely-detailed reading of the piece. Interestingly, the tiny cantata was commissioned (from the non-Jewish Grossi) by a Jewish fraternity in Modena. Remaining in Italy, we heard a-cappella repertoire of Salomone Rossi presented with clean, fresh and well-coordinated sound. German-born cantor, composer and researcher of Jewish music Samuel Naumbourg, who lived most of his life in France, was instrumental in the revival of Rossi’s synagogue music. Dorothea Wagner gave vivid expression to the solo in his “S’u Sho’rim” (Lift up your heads, o ye gates), a piece very much in the traditional German synagogue style.
The ensemble’s uncompromising performance of Russian cantor (1843–1911) Abraham Dunajewski’s “Na’ariz’cho”, a work rich in drama and contrasts, featuring choir and both soloists, was impressive and stirring. Not many concert-goers will be aware of the fact that, a few months before he died in 1828 at the age of 31, Franz Schubert produced a setting of the Psalm No. 92, Tov Lehodot La’Adonai for choir and baritone, and using the Hebrew text. It was commissioned by cantor and influential Viennese composer of synagogue music Solomon Sulzer, the solo to be sung by the Sulzer himself. Homophonic and harmonically uncomplicated, typical of Schubert part songs, with solos subtly woven in and out of the choral role, the piece was given a beautifully chiselled performance.
The program gave quite some focus to works inspired by the Kaddish, the magnification and sanctification of God‘s name, the term “Kaddish” often used to refer specifically to the mourner’s prayer.  An effective combination was made of Maurice Ravel’s “Deux mélodies hébraïques” – Reinhard Riedel’s plaintive performance of a Jewish-sounding violin solo, also Dorothea Wagner and Tilmann Löser in the “Kaddish”, the gentle dissonances of Ravel’s evocative accompaniment adding interesting, otherworldly effects to the customary Kaddish melody. Sandwiched between these two pieces was Salomone Rossi’s “Kaddish” setting, in which we had the opportunity of hearing Ludwig Böhme’s sonorous, warm tenor voice.
Moving into the 20th century, the Leipzig Synagogalchor sang Kurt Weill’s “Kiddush” (1946) (the prayer of thanksgiving for the Sabbath evening wine), commissioned for the 75th anniversary of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue and dedicated it to Weill’s father, who had been chief cantor in Dessau. Falk Hoffmann’s expressive powers made for an eloquent and moving performance of this liturgical gem, as he presented the incantations of the cantor against sultry blues-influenced responses of the choir.
Moving from sacred music to secular, the concert ended with a few Yiddish songs and one traditional Hebrew tune – songs of Mordechai Gebirtig, Mikhl Gelbart and Itzik Manger. It would have been helpful to have the song texts to follow for the narrative of Gelbart’s “Di Nakht” (Night), for example, its eerie agenda punctuated by outbursts, in Juan Garcia’s superb and nostalgic setting of Gebirtig’s mood piece “Kinderyorn” (Childhood Years) or in Fredo Jung’s lilting arrangement of Itzik Manger’s “Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym” (A Tree Stands on the Path), so finely blended. All these arrangements were outstanding. Indeed, Friedbert Gross’s original and challenging arrangement of Avraham Idelsohn’s “Hava Nagila” (Let us rejoice) breathed new colour and energy into a rather overworked song!
Beyond its unique mission, the Leipziger Synagogalchor offers performance of the highest professional standard, its singers, and indeed its instrumentalists, splendidly trained, inspiring, disciplined and communicative.
(Pamela Hickman’s Concert Critique Blog, 18. Nobember 2017
http://pamelahickmansblog.blogspot.de/2017/11/the-leipzig-synagogue-choir-on-concert.html)

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