in: Reviews

March 5, 2012

Weiner’s Yiddish Songs from son, Yehudi Wyner

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“The Yiddish Art Songs of Lazar Weiner” were the subjects of a program at Boston’s Old South Meeting House yesterday afternoon. (Father and son spell their names differently.)  Weiner, who died 30 years ago, is probably best known in the Boston area as the father of distinguished composer and pianist Yehudi Wyner. The latter, who directed the concert from the piano, was joined by five singers who clearly are expert in this repertory. The performance, part of the Third Annual Boston Jewish Music Festival, was supported by Hebrew College and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music.

The elder Weiner, born in 1897 in Ukraine, emigrated to the U.S. in 1914. For many years director of music at New York’s Central Synagogue, he composed chamber music, an opera, and music for the Yiddish theater. But his art songs “lie at the heart of his work” and are his “deepest and most authentic expression,” as his son put it in spoken remarks at the beginning of the concert.

These are, in other words, lieder — not folksongs and not musical theater songs, although elements of both could be heard in a few of the selections. Composed during the seven decades from 1918 to 1977, the songs heard Sunday afternoon are predominantly in an idiom which, although conservative and essentially tonal, could have been written only in the 20th century. Reminiscent at times of Debussy, and especially of Musorgsky—whose influence on his father has been noted by Wyner—they might be described as post-Romantic, although some also incorporate occasional suggestions of the free atonal music of Schoenberg.

These songs are not easy for performer or listener. Even the few that open with references to folk or theatrical genres evolve quickly into something less straightforward, more complex. Although the poems are mostly strophic, the music is almost entirely through-composed, rarely repeating itself for successive verses. Many, such as the 1936 setting of H. Rosenblatt’s Der Held (The Hero), end suddenly, with an unexpected twist. In this case the broken-off ending reflects the ironic question at the end of the poem, about a war veteran reduced to begging: “Is a shower of pennies in my cup enough?” It was sung powerfully by baritone David Kravitz, whose huge voice was particularly well suited for this selection.

Der Held was one of only two songs performed Sunday not also included on a 2006 CD from Naxos (Lazar Weiner: The Art of Yiddish Song). There Yehudi Wyner accompanies a group of singers that include Robert Abelson, also heard Sunday, as well as Wyner’s wife, Susan Davenny-Wyner. The CD booklet may contain the most thorough published discussion of Lazar Weiner’s life and music, providing extensive commentary on the songs and their texts.

The latter, all drawn from 20th-century Yiddish poets, are prevailingly serious, as in a set of three by Abraham Joshua Heschel that were sung Sunday and are also recorded on the CD. As Wyner noted, these are concerned with the relationship of man to God. Composed in 1973, they conclude with the nearly atonal Got un mentsh (God and Mankind), which struck me as one of the most imaginative of the songs. They were sung ably by tenor Joshua Breitzer, but here as in many other songs it was Wyner’s piano playing that really caught my attention.

This was not because of any inappropriate histrionics from the pianist. On the contrary, the playing was invariably sensitive to the music and to the singers. But Lazar Weiner makes the piano at least an equal partner in his songs. Some, such as the 1936 Ergets vayt (Somewhere far off) — which, we were told, was sung as solace by prisoners in the gulag — combine a relatively simple melody with a much more complex piano part.

It was therefore a particular pleasure to hear three of Lazar Weiner’s solo piano pieces. These included two from a set of five entitled Calculations, composed in 1931–3 when Weiner was studying with the numerically obsessed pedagogue Joseph Schillinger. Wyner’s playing here was as beautiful (and as virtuosic) as I have ever heard him. In the two Calculations, the inspired harping on one or two recurring chords or scales reminded me somewhat of Scriabin. A third piece, composed for Yehudi when he was two, contained a central lyrical section vaguely reminiscent of Ravel, framed by quicker outer passages full of very delicately played filigree.

As explained in the notes for the CD, Lazar Weiner’s songs strictly follow an ethos of respect for the poetry, avoiding repetitions of words or extended passages for the piano. As a result, they are short but highly changeable in character, sometimes rising from quiet to surprising intensity within a few short lines.

The baritone Robert Abelson, whom Wyner described as a colleague and student of his father, demonstrated this changeability in the two latest songs on the program, especially Yidn zingen in di bunkers: Ani mamin (The Jews in the bunkers sing: I believe) from 1977. Abelson’s singing here was not as flawless as in the 1992 performance recorded on the CD. But it must have been, as Wyner described it, “an authentic picture of what my father had in mind.” The large audience was clearly moved by this dark song, which nevertheless ends with at least a suggestion of brightness.

I was less enthusiastic about several songs which, drawing on idioms familiar from Yiddish musical theater, avoid the banality of Broadway but never quite achieve real lightness. More successful and imaginative, I think, were two brief “Humoresques” from 1965 and the quiet Ovntlid (Evening Song) from 1968, sung with appropriate soft humor by soprano Ilana Davidson. Mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgrove was especially lyrical in the early Shtile tener (Quiet tones) from 1918.

A word about the venue: Old South Meeting House was probably not the best place for this program, with its inopportunely placed pews (many facing in the wrong direction) and creaky wooden floors. Constant comings and goings, as well as picture-taking, during the performances did not make it easy to hear all the words. This was especially true in the back, close to the “museum” displays, where this reviewer was forced to sit. This music deserves concert performances under more professional circumstances.

The language should not deter singers; it’s essentially modern German with occasional Hebrew words. (The poems are transliterated phonetically in the CD booklet; it is regrettable that only translations were included in the concert program.) Never pretentious or overbearing, Weiner’s songs are a neglected but significant strand of 20th-century European-American music. His unique accomplishment deserves wider recognition.

David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach.
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