A Yiddish Winterreise

A Yiddish Winterreise
A Holocaust Survivor’s Inner Journey Told Through Yiddish Song

Mark Glanville (bass-baritone) & Alexander Knapp (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 10 January, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room

This programme was first performed in January 2007 to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The eye-catching title was supported by the description which appears with the associated Naxos recording, viz. that this is “a sequence of songs from the Yiddish repertoire, recreating the original, Schubertian journey in a Holocaust context.” Apart from ‘Der Lindenbaum’ being sung to a Yiddish version of the original Wilhelm Müller text, the Schubert analogy was confined to the number of songs (twenty-four) and their performance in uninterrupted sequence.I felt the connection was casual rather than structural; of the journeys being compared one was geographical, the other psychological. Indeed a strap-line used in the marketing material, “A Holocaust Survivor’s Inner Journey Told Through Yiddish Song”, confirmed as much.

“Winterreise” has a narrative structure which this series of songs lacks. Müller writes exclusively from the viewpoint of his central character; it is he who is confiding in us, even if he oscillates between reflection on his past experience and consciousness of his current environment. These Yiddish songs, on the other hand, are the work of many voices. The unity is provided not by the creative artist but by the re-creative performers. It is Mark Glanville’s autobiographical experience of exploring and discovering this repertoire which provides the interest of this collection. I appreciated their range rather than any systematic development.

Various manifestations of Jewish culture appeared, while figures who have played a significant role in shaping Jewish cultural history were represented. Muller’s jilted lover was replaced by a Yiddish wedding singer, who established his credentials with an unaccompanied, off-stage setting of the “Song for the Groom” by Majer Bogdanski, the Ukraine-born champion of Yiddish culture. Glanville’s approach is a mixture of the dramatic and the devotional, with some folk entertainment thrown in. A variety of musical styles is traversed, some from the synagogue. The teaching of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Bereditchev, an eighteenth-century Hasidic leader, as embodied in “What will happen when the Messiah comes?” was intoned with much cantorial parlando.

Alexander Olshanetsky, another Ukrainian immigrant deeply involved in Yiddish theatre in New York as composer and conductor, contributed a warmly affectionate tribute to the city of Vilna, written in the style of a Russian Romance.

Mordechai Gebirtig’s 1938 song “It’s burning”, inspired by a pogrom in Poland two years before, foreshadowed the calamity which was to befall the Jews of Europe, and urged its hearers not to face it as passive victims.

Mark Warshafsky’s “By the fireplace”, originating from the late nineteenth-century persecution of Jews in the Russian empire and adopted by oppressed communities during the Nazi period, had its folk-song style elevated in Alexander Knapp’s arrangement to that of a pure Art-song, with a particularly beautiful postlude. “Under your white stars” (Abraham Budno) was written in the Vilna ghetto itself in 1943.

The gravity, itself sometimes expressed in folk melodies, was punctuated by communal enjoyment: a Cossack dance, imitation of a horse galloping out of control, the story of a domestically inadequate wife, were musical epigrams expertly projected by both musicians. The trills and arabesques in Knapp’s arrangement of “When Rabbi Elimelekh” were spectacular demonstrations, not only of his sensibility but also of his dexterity.

At the centre of the performance was ‘Der Lindenbaum’ from “Winterreise” itself, in a specially commissioned Yiddish translation. On the evidence of this reading I would be interested to hear these artists tackle the whole work. Glanville’s singing was beautifully poised, the soft delivery of “Nun bin ich manche Stunde entfernt von jenem Ort” especially touching, while the balance of the voice with Knapp’s crisply articulated accompaniment was ideally judged.

The closing quarter of the cycle was dominated by the figure of the child: longing for the innocence of childhood in “Moyshele my friend” and “Childhood years”, lullabies sung in the most intimate fashion, contrasted with the despondent lament of “And a child will lead them”, which regrets that the children have not been protected from slaughter.The centre of Glanville’s voice is staunch and meaty. The top is rather hit-and-miss. As he strained up to his high notes in “Childhood years” one was aware of the discomfort but appreciated the effort. I was reminded of Norman Bailey 30 years ago at English National Opera essaying Italian lyric baritone roles alongside the Wagner for which he is justly renowned, reaching the upper range but only just.

As the personal intensity of text and music grew in those final songs, Glanville became more ragged vocally. On occasions he resorted to falsetto and the voice broke a couple of times in the closing stages. In his programme notes Glanville refers back to the time before he had undertaken the classical training of his voice, when in giving song-recitals he felt able to communicate more directly with audiences. There was a suspicion that the rough-and-ready vocalism he showed here at times was an attempt to return to that state. Was the crumpled suit he wore intended to enhance that very effect?

As a Gentile, I did feel at a disadvantage. The songs must have struck deeper into the psyche of Jewish listeners, who would doubtless in many cases have experienced them separately in a shared popular culture. To judge by remarks by members of the audience overheard at the end, many of these songs are familiar in Jewish households. For me their impact was uneven.

The cycle can be heard again in London on Monday 19th January 2009 at 7.30 p.m. in room G2 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in Russell Square.

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