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Cantorial Music


Oct. 16, 2007

Kamti Lehallel (I Rise in Praise):

The Musical Tradition of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities of Amsterdam, London and New York

Beth Hatefutsoth

Amazon price $27.99

Kamti Lehallel (I Rise in Praise) is a lavish, 2 CD set presenting the Spanish and Portuguese cantorial tradition, one of the best preserved musical traditions of the Jewish diaspora, but also one of the most obscure. The set contains 50 cantorial works representing centuries of tradition, sung by Cantor Daniel Halfon of the Yad Harav Nissim synagogue in Jerusalem, accompanied by the Or Hadash Choir and a small chamber orchestra conducted by Azi Schwartz.

After the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain (and a few year later, Portugal), some Jews chose to stay and convert to Christianity, while attempting to maintain some Jewish traditions. As the Inquisition intensified in the 1500's, many descendants of these conversos fled to northern Europe, where they were free to re-establish the practice of their ancestral religion. In communities in Amsterdam, London and later in far-flung locations such as New York, Suriname and Gibraltar, a rich choral tradition developed for synagogue services that drew heavily from the western classical canon.

Halfon's powerful baritone is in fine form on this crystal clear recording, and the delicate vocal harmonies and instrumental accompaniment result in a rich, vivid auditory experience. Many of the pieces do resemble each other, so it might be a bit much to listen to the whole set in one sitting, despite the essential beauty of the material. Particularly exquisite and interesting are the various renditions of the kaddish, especially the example from the Rosh Hashanna liturgy, a haunting and well-known melody.

Some listeners will certainly be surprised by Kamti Lehallel, as the collection superficially sounds just like western choral music, even given the great care taken in proper, Sephardic pronunciation of the Hebrew. One of the big influences on this genre was 18th century Spanish opera styles, and this comes through as well.

But this kind of borrowing is also a tradition - musically, Jewish communities have always absorbed the conventions of the surrounding, larger culture while maintaining the set order of prayer and the use of Hebrew. The piyutim and prayers of the Jews of Arab lands use the same complicated scale system found in Arabic classical and popular music, while in America countless psalms and prayers have been set to music that is basically folk or rock.

The production quality on Kamti Lehallel is top-notch in all areas. The discs come with an illustrated CD sized hardbound book that features extensive liner and production notes in Hebrew and English. Each track is presented with the Hebrew text (along with an English translation) and an explanation of its history and usage in Hebrew and English. This recording is a must for lovers of chazzanut and choral music and will be of great interest to anyone interested in the diversity of the Jewish musical experience.

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