Classical: Sight Readings - Back to Jewish Roots A Unique Archive of Folk Music Has Been Given New Life, as Have Histori C Piano Recordings
Church, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
In 1911 a group of folklorists set out from St Petersburg to comb the Russian shtetls for Jewish songs and chants. Inspired by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and led by SM Ansky - author of The Dybbuk - they wanted to record this oral tradition before it evaporated for good. The resulting collection of cylinders was so impressive that the incoming Bolsheviks decreed that the work should continue in Kiev, and put their own man in charge. Moses Beregovsky was a good Stalinist and an excellent folklorist, and until his deportation to Siberia in 1949 he recorded and meticulously transcribed several thousand more songs and texts. However, when he was released in 1955 the cylinders were found to have disappeared, and people came to assume that this unique archive had been destroyed.
Now the ebullient Israel Adler, professor of musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, takes up the tale. "Four years ago the director of the National Library in Kiev came to see us about photocopying manuscripts and, seeing our cylinder collection, he mentioned that he too had some cylinders, which the American Library of Congress had looked at without much interest. Could this be the Beregovsky collection? I jumped on the first available plane to Kiev, and discovered that it was."
Last week, in an oddly touching ceremony at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Adler and his patron Yehudi Menuhin took delivery of an inaugural CD from the Ukrainian ambassador, amid protestations of eternal friendship between Ukrainians and Jews. Even leaving aside the awkward matter of past pogroms, the course of this love-affair has been bumpy, with Kiev raising endless obstacles to the digitalisation of the recordings Jerusalem wants. While Adler's aim is to make the archive available to scholars all over the world, Kiev's aim is to make a profit. As a Berlin-born Ost- Jude, Adler takes this sort of adversity for granted. "Whenever things seem discouraging, I listen again to these marvellous recordings. Then I am re-inspired." To illustrate the point, he plays some examples: a Bartokian country song with driving rhythms; a dance sounding as if it is straight out of Fiddler on the Roof; an austerely beautiful liturgical chant. When this latter was recently broadcast on Haifa radio, he adds, a middle-aged Israeli rang in to say that he recognised the voice of the cantor. It was his own grandfather. Jewish music is at present on a roll, but what exactly is it? Alex Knapp, the Joe Loss lecturer at City University, who next month moves to SOAS, offers a neat definition. "Cantillation. Music that traces its origins to the temple chant of 2,000 years ago." But then things get complicated, because the music has absorbed influences from every land where it has alighted. He traces its transmogrifications with the Ashkenazic Jews to America, the Sephardics round the Mediterranean, and Oriental Jews through Ethiopia, Yemen, and eastwards to China. …