I must admit I had little idea what to expect when faced with the title of this performance. Was I about to hear a rendition of Schubert’s great Lieder in the elaborate style of a synagogue cantor? Not exactly. Glanville and Knapp have in fact created and recorded their own Yiddish song cycle taking the basic story of Die Schöne Müllerin – that of the narrator’s unrequited love for a miller girl – using the text and melodies of traditional Yiddish folksongs in highly convincing Schubertian arrangements.

© Liorah Tchiprout
© Liorah Tchiprout

Unlike their 2010 recording Yiddish Winterreise, which focuses on the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust, Di Sheyne Milnerin draws on the large repertoire of Yiddish love songs – demonstrating a completely different aspect of Yiddish culture. The cycle includes an original composition by Knapp (“Himen”, with poem by Abraham Sutzkever) and a Yiddish translation of Schubert’s “Am Feierabend” from Die Schöne Müllerin (“Nokh der Arbet”). The song is fascinating when compared to the folk-song arrangements that surround it: if one were not paying too much attention, the arrangements could be mistaken for true German Lieder.

For those who are not familiar with the centuries-old Yiddish tradition, Knapp’s programme note helpfully includes a short description of its history and the music’s main features – which include simple melodies, use of the minor key and a type of ornamentation known as the “krekht” (meaning “sigh” or “sob”). The folk-song melodies work well in Knapp’s Schubertian idiom since they are easily harmonised according to conventional “Western” tonality and – as can be seen in the title of tonight’s performance – the Yiddish language is very similar to German (when German Jews were forced out of their homes in the Middle Ages they settled in Eastern Europe, taking their dialect with them which became known as Yiddish). It is a shame the programme only used the English translation of the text; inclusion of the original Yiddish would have been helpful in understanding the meaning and structure of the songs.

Glanville captured perfectly the characteristic melancholy of Yiddish music. His bass-baritone voice projects very well: it is powerful yet not overbearing. In “Shma Yisroel” (“Hear, O Israel!”) the pain and distress of the protagonist’s situation is particularly tangible, the last improvisatory passage (an imitation of cantorial style) extremely emotionally charged. Although both performers come from Jewish backgrounds, Glanville’s programme note is more personal than Knapp’s. Whilst his mother managed to escape from Berlin to London in 1932 her cousin Theo was not as lucky and died at the hands of the Nazis. For Glanville, this concert has a doubly personal meaning to him: not only is he performing the music of his ancestors, but it was Schubert’s Lieder that first inspired him to become a singer. It was in the knowledge of the artists’ personal attachment to the project that I really became captivated in the performance.

Knapp’s imaginative piano arrangements are highly intricate yet still flow beautifully. As with Schubert’s original Die Schöne Müllerin, I had the impression that the piano is far more than just a simple accompaniment. It is as much involved in the storytelling as the voice and retains a certain faithfulness to the original Yiddish song. With three postgraduate degrees from Cambridge and having taught and published widely on the subject of Jewish music, Knapp is a world expert in the field. He pre-empts those who might question the idea of combining folk-song and traditional Jewish music with the Western classical style by pointing out that it is actually nothing new. For centuries, composers have incorporated folk music into their own compositions (the Russian “Five” immediately come to mind). What’s more, in the early 20th century immigrant cantors in America made a transition from the synagogue to the concert hall, performing to huge crowds. In a sense, Glanville and Knapp are simply adding their own voice to a century-old tradition.

Sadly the concert was not well attended, which makes me think it would have worked better during a lunchtime or “rush hour” slot rather than a Saturday evening. Hopefully their recording of Di Sheyne Milnerin will bring the duo’s music to a wider audience so that next time they will be performing to a full house – they certainly deserve one.

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