Benkshaft - Yiddishe Lider (Yiddish Songs)
Mariejan van Oort, mezzo soprano and voice teacher, and Jacques Verjeijen, pianist and composer, have been working as a duo since 1993 and specialize in Yiddish song. In addition to a busy concert schedule they have also recorded three albums so far, of which the present offering is the second. Its title, Benkshaft, derives from the title of one of the songs in this outstanding collection. Benkshaft is a Yiddish term roughly translating as longing and references both future and past, and languor may also transmit some of its meaning. The songs presented on Benkshaft come from a tome found in an antiquarian Jewish bookshop in Amsterdam, "Lider, gezungen funem folk, gezamlt fun Nukhem Shakhnovsky, Paris, 1958", and represent a shortened and somewhat modified version of Mariejan van Oort and Jacques Verheijen's concert programme of the same title. Among others, the collection includes a number of songs by Mordekhay Gebirtig. A few of the songs were given new melodies by Verheijen, which fit in seamlessly with the traditional material, such is this composer's sensitivity to these songs.
Singer Mariejan van Oort is endowed with a lyrical mezzo voice that floats seemingly effortlessly and is totally unforced. She is a natural for this material. Pianist Jacques Verheijen, who also plays tsimbl (cimbalom or cymbalom) and accordion, complements Ms. van Oort perfectly with his sensitive accompaniments. Both are outstanding musicians of the highest calibre, and Benkshaft - Yiddishe Lider is an absolutely compelling album. So much so, I simply had to listen to it a second time without interruption after first hearing it. Vladimir Mendelssohn provides additional superb accompaniment on viola on several tracks, and the Benkshaft String Quartet on Oyfn boydem shloft der dakh.
Benkshaft - Yiddishe Lider opens with a short Shpatsir or Promenade for tsimbl and vocalise by Jacques Verheijen, by way of an introduction. This recurs later as Shpatsir un improvizatsye for viola and piano, and again as Shpatsir for tsimbl and vocalise before the closer. The concept, as well as its execution, works supremely and could be compared to the role of the "Promenade" interludes in Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition. Following the introductory Shpatsir, the first of the songs is Oyfn veg shteyt a boym. This sets the standard for the rest of the album, which the duo maintain effortlessly. Dos pastekhl is a delightful new find that I hadn't encountered before, while Yosl der klezmer, one of the great standards of Yiddish song, sounds wonderfully fresh and enchanting. Mariejan van Oort brings out every last nuance of the sadness and near-despair of Oyfn boydem shloft der dakh with the greatest sensitivity that's so amply demonstrated throughout this wonderful album, more than ably assisted by Jacques Verheijen's equally sensitive piano and here, the Benkshaft String Quartet also. The first of the Gebirtig songs, Kum Leybke, tantsn provides some welcome lighter relief. The touching Shterndl changes the mood to more somber shades again. An interlude is provided by Verheijen's Shpatsir un improvizatsye, Promenade and Improvisation, for piano and viola, and leads to the classic 16th century (C.E.) Hebrew prayer Shalom aleykhem in Goldfarb's musical setting. This simple, short Sabbath prayer somehow seems to have a power and beauty that may seem out of all proportion to its brevity and simplicity, and van Oort and Verheijen's interpretation is no exception, despite being further curtailed by omitting the last two verses and replacing them with vocalise. Another Gebirtig song, Der zinger fun noyt is given a wonderfully dreamy quality in its mournfulness. A heymisher bulgar, the Jacobs and Ellstein classic, brings a welcome joyous touch. But things soon turn more somber again with Shtil lomir ale farshvindn, beautifully set to new music by Jacques Verheijen, which remains utterly faithful to the spirit of the song. Verheijen's first bass clarinet-like, then organ-like dramatic accordion opens the worldly-wise Der tsviyak, while Ms. van Oort's touches of irony always remain subtle and restrained. A dudele features a beautifully subtle, even understated tsimbl accompaniment that greatly enhances the dreamy, devotional feel. The title track, Benkshaft, is a romantic love song telling of unrequieted love. A lighter mood returns with the almost cabaret-like Gefilte fish. Lightness remains with Dos regendl. Gebirtig's Erev yom kiper has again been sensitively set to new music by Jacques Verheijen, and the gravity of the subject is shown full reverence. 's tut vey! is another Mordekhay Gebirtig song given the full Verheijen treatment, and to superb effect too. The anger and pain of this song is given an added urgency and edge. The soulful Toybn shteyn bay mayn fentster is followed by a Jacques Verheijen original, Gas nign far shurele, a spirited wordless song in the tradition of the Chassidic nigunim. Tsimbl and vocalise return with a final Shpatsir interlude before the closer, Gebirtig's Dos lidl fun goldenem land, a soulful ballad.
The excellent liner of Mariejan van Oort and Jacques Verheijen's Benkshaft provides full lyrics for all songs in romanized Yiddish (Hebrew in the case of Shalom aleykhem) and English translation. Although I am not (yet) a fluent Yiddish speaker myself, some of the translations seem a touch on the liberal side but generally remain well within the spirit of the texts.
Mariejan van Oort and Jacques Verheijen have done a superb job in bringing us this wonderful collection of Yiddish songs. Benkshaft - Yiddishe Lider should be essential in any Yiddish song collector's CD library. It is very much to be hoped that we'll have the great pleasure of seeing this outstanding duo perform live in the UK sometime. Meanwhile, voice and piano arrangements by Jacques Verheijen of all the songs on Benkshaft (as well as seperate volumes for each of Mariejan van Oort and Jacques Verheijen's other albums) are available through their web site.
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