The title of the Jerusalem Quartet‘s new album, The Yiddish Cabaret, may be a bit of a stretch. But the collection succeeds nicely in recalling the Jewish contribution to the European music scene of the 1920s and ’30s. It bundles concert works by two prominent Jewish composers of the time with Leonid Desyatnikov’s new arrangements of five actual cabaret tunes, sung here by Israeli soprano Hila Baggio.
Korngold’s String Quartet No. 2 and Schulhoff’s “Five Pieces for String Quartet” are quite good companion pieces for the cabaret music. They reflect the hopeful, outward-looking internationalism of the cabaret scene. The Jerusalem Quartet offers simultaneously spirited and studied performances of these concert works.
Though Korngold is best known for his rousing scores to films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood, the brief Schulhoff pieces are actually more cinematic than Korngold’s Quartet No. 2. Streaks of romanticism enliven the traditional forms Schulhoff riffs on (waltz, tango, tarantella, etc.). The musicians find as much depth in the frenzied “Alla Czeca” as in the soulful “Tango Milonga.”
The Korngold Quartet No. 2 begins with a nervous jolt, and the “Allegro” first movement never settles into a rhythm. A kaleidoscope of moods arises from a spiky four-note motive. The overall sensation is of a precisely modulated, anxious pain. The musicians evoke this expertly, finally breathing a sigh of relaxation in the pastoral conclusion.
The bouncy, folksy “Intermezzo” movement offers relief, with a more rounded version of that four-note theme developing into a light romantic feel. Still the musicians give it a frisson of anxiety, and an air of mystery arrives with the “Larghetto,” where songlike melodies and hymn-like Brahms-esque passages alternate with ghostly presentiments of Arvo Pärt. An ineffable sweetness emerges from the quiet tension in the Jerusalem’s sensitive performance.
The musicians then dance affably through the “Waltz (Finale),” leaning into the music’s dramatic flares and putting a brave face on the trouble implied by the harmonic strangeness.
As the emsemble’s violist Ori Kam writes in the liner notes, “This album sets out to show that Yiddish culture did not die in the Holocaust, but rather spread and influenced much of wider western culture” – Broadway and Hollywood, to take two massive examples.
Desyatnikov has arranged five cabaret songs from interwar Warsaw and Łódź. The Jerusalem Quartet chose them as “representative of Yiddish cabaret style, [songs] which portray the lives of Jews in urban Poland, their joy, their suffering and hope.” Specifically these tunes reflect the lives of dreamers, criminals, those who long for a better life, and those who long for home.
Desyatnikov describes the set as a song cycle that “brings together ‘lowbrow’ and ‘highbrow’ cultures of language and music with a bitter smile and humanity.”
The CD package include the original Yiddish lyrics along with English, French, and German translations. The words are loaded with pain and humor. Baggio combines operatic tone and colloquial cadence with skill, gusto, and an organic sense of fun. Her voice is sweetly beautiful in general, brash when called for, with accents lightened by a tongue-in-cheek approach.
There’s corresponding humor in the arrangements, such as in the sweeps and sparkles of the thief’s lament “Werd nicht mehr stehlen” (“Won’t steal anymore”). This closing song encapsulates the cycle’s fusion of darkness and light. “I am not afraid or ashamed…Because I received my profession as an inheritance…I was caught and turned red, They grabbed me and beat me nearly to death…If I get out of prison, I’ll walk on your righteous path. The first order of business? A gold watch. I will not steal any more, I’ll just take, just take.”
The Yiddish Cabaret brings back the sound and sensibility of a bygone time and place with skill and high spirits. It’s available now from Harmonia Mundi in CD and digital formats.