Journal of Synagogue Music

Kamti Lehallel – I Rise in Praise — The Musical Tradition
of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities of
Amsterdam, London and New York.

A two-CD set performed by Hazzan Daniel Halfon, with choral and instrumental ensemble conducted by Azi Schwartz, with an accompanying brochure of commentary by Edwin Seroussi;

Issued by Beth Hatefutsoth BTR0701.

Reviewed by Charles Heller

When we see that the recordings before us have been produced by Beth Hatefutsoth together with the Hebrew University, we know we are in for a special treat. This is not just more synagogue music. Here are 50 prayer settings that represent the beautiful melodic heritage of the Spanish-Portuguese tradition, passing through the hands of masters from the 18th to the 21st centuries, covering Shabbat, Shalosh Regalim and the High Holidays.

These two CDs unite musicians and styles from the Spanish-Portuguese and Ashkenazi worlds—a demonstration of that interpenetration of cultures that was productive for so long, which began in Georgian London around the time when Joseph Grobstock took a short cut from the Great Synagogue (later to be bombed in the Blitz of 1940) to Bevis Marks (once described as “the acknowledged parent shrine of British Jewry,” still with us after 300 years) and bumped into Manasseh Azevedo da Costa, Israel Zangwill’s King of Schnorrers. The most famous result of this clash of cultures was the creation of Fish-and-Chips, but that is another story…

Much of this beautiful repertoire is the remains, preserved by oral tradition, of what originally constituted art music, composed by trained, often non- Jewish, composers. Eric Werner once described this genre as “descendent material” (absinkendes Kulturgut)–derivative and inferior to its original. To bring its original qualities back to life, it should ideally be performed with proper bel canto technique. What does that signify? Among cantors, “bel canto” is often merely a term to use in jokes, as in the well-known jingle created by the late Cantor Edward Fogel about his late cousin:

Louis Danto
Of Toronto
Will sing bel canto– Pronto!

Briefly summarized, bel canto aims to give the voice the quality of a violin or other instrument, the singer applying equal pressure and attack through- out the range to produce a seamless whole. Without proper technique, even a deceptively simple melody such as De Sola’s Adon Olam becomes a set of hurdles (I have heard many seasoned cantors fail in the attempt). Danto himself called bel canto “the lost art.” His technique can be heard applied to the Spanish-Portuguese repertoire on the acclaimed CD I Heard a Voice from Heaven (http://faujsa.fau.edu/jsa/).

Raymond Goldstein, associate conductor of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue Choir, has given us arrangements in a wide range of styles to suit the varied types of melody, from Verdi (particularly appropriate for Rabbi Benjamin Artom’s setting of Havu–imagine how Mario del Monaco would have delivered it!) to John Rutter, although to my Anglo-Jewish ears the 19th-century pieces have about them more of the American barbershop than the Victorian sunset glow of the English tradition. Goldstein’s setting of the Rosh Hashanah piyyut Ahot Kettanah with its medieval aura, suggests a performance in the echoing halls of a castle in 13th-century Catalonia when Ramban stopped by. However, it might not have been out of place to also make use of one or two of the harmonizations that were done with good taste in the past, such as the Odekha melody as arranged by Jacob Hadida.

These CDs are particularly welcome because of the wealth of background information provided in the lavishly produced accompanying book, based on the invaluable research of Professors Israel Adler and Edwin Seroussi. But this book demands some practice on the part of the reader—you will need up to four fingers in different pages (many of them unnumbered) at the same time to ferret out the required information.

British-born Hazzan Daniel Halfon, whose commanding baritone voice has been heard by Sephardic congregations in Amsterdam, London and New York, has served the Yad Ha-Rav Nisim Synagogue in Jerusalem for over twenty years. He brings his considerable experience with the Spanish- Portuguese repertoire and tradition to these recordings, accompanied by fine instrumentalists and singers. As they say in my Portuguese neighborhood, Pelo canto se conhece o pássaro, e pela obra o homem (“The sparrow is known by his song, a man is known by his works”). With so much ersatz liturgical music being produced today, it is a breath of fresh air to hear the real thing. Every cantor should get acquainted with this material.

Charles Heller is the award-winning author of What To Listen For in Jewish Music (www.ecanthuspress.com). A selection of his compositions can be explored through the website of the Canadian Music Centre (www.musiccentre.ca).