The Good 'Bbuk
St. Lawrence String Quartet delivers a powerful musical statement
After two acclaimed albums of classical string quartets—by Schumann and Tchaikovsky, respectively—the St. Lawrence String Quartet has issued an extraordinary disc of modern recordings by Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentinean composer best known for his work with the Kronos Quartet. Yet, when Golijov says in the liner notes that his first meeting in 1991 with the redoubtable St. Lawrence String Quartet (Geoff Nuttall and Barry Shiffman, violins; Lesley Robertson, viola; and Marina Hoover, cello) was a life-defining moment, believe it—you'll be hard-pressed to find a more dynamic collaboration between a living composer and a contemporary ensemble.
No matter how you feel about contemporary composition, Yiddishbbuk (EMI Classics 573562) is in all likelihood the most powerful piece of new music that you will hear this year. Two of the selections included here, the title piece and the closing track, each won first prize at the Kennedy Center's Friedheim Awards for composition. (The Susan Rose Recording Fund for Contemporary Jewish Music of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture helped fund the recording project.) Think Hebrew mysticism mixed with the visceral force of a piercing Astor Piazzolla street-fight motif and the soul-shattering existential angst of novelist Franz Kafka, and you'll get an inkling of the intense emotions that this recording can stir. Not for the fainthearted.
Mortality rings throughout this work. "Last Round" (the title is borrowed from a short story on boxing by Julio Cortázar) was drafted in 1991 after Golijov learned that Piazzolla—the Argentinean composer and bandoneonista who transformed the tango with jazz and symphonic influences—had suffered a near-fatal stroke. "Last Round" is heard here for double string quartet (with the Ying Quartet) and double bass (Mark Dresser), with the two quartets confronting each other in a tango marked by pistol-hot triplets and menacing bow slides. "Last Round" segues into "Lullaby and Doina" (with flutist Tara Helen O'Connor), a variation on a theme that Golijov composed for the 2001 Sally Potter film The Man Who Cried, wedding lovely Yiddish and gypsy melodies.
Yiddishbbuk is a horse of another color. These "inscriptions" for string quartet are an attempt to reconstruct archaic apocryphal psalms that Kafka read while living in Prague. In a letter to a friend, Kafka once relayed some of the surviving text: "No one sings as purely as those who are in the deepest hell. Theirs is the song which we confused with that of the angels." Those fabled psalms, originally "in the mode of the Babylonic Lamentations," are transformed here into a memorial to the Holocaust, alternating between the elegiac and the chaotic. The movements of the piece bear the initials of the five people commemorated in the work, including three children interned by the Nazis at the Terezin concentration camp (their poems and drawings were preserved in the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly).
The disc concludes with "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind," a piece for string quartet and klezmer clarinets (by Todd Palmer) that is an homage to a 12th-century kabbalist rabbi of Provence. It is a musical expression—reflecting joy and sorrow, laughter and tears—of a mystical Jewish belief in a constant state of communion in which human consciousness nurtures and renews itself through meditation. The piece deftly blends prayer and dance and leaves the listener in a state of grace that is all-too-rare in modern music. Five years ago, Kronos Quartet turned "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind" into a classical best seller, but the SLSQ raises this work to new heights.
This article, "The Good 'Bbuk," is part of the Strings Archive, which you can access with a paid site subscription.
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