Saturday, March 10, 2018

Di Tsaytmashin performs Yiddish Baroque Music in Jerusalem

Photo: Dani Machlis

Yiddish Baroque music is not a genre one is likely to come across very often. It was curiosity that motivated this writer to attend a concert of an ensemble calling itself “Di Tsaytmashin” (The Time Machine) at Beit Hagat, a venue well hidden away in the tranquil, narrow streets of Jerusalem’s magical Ein Kerem village, on March 7th 2018. Beit Hagat (a historic building housing an old olive press) is an informal venue hosting workshops in various fields, lectures, regular classes, concerts, theater and performance events, jam sessions, film showings and more. It  provides a space to encourage joint and independent creation and for cultural and religious dialogue.The event was the official Israeli launch of Di Tsaytmashin’s CD “Yiddish Baroque Music - from the Book of the Rejoicing Soul”. Members of the ensemble are  Avishai Aleksander Fisz-vocals,  Bari Moscovitz-theorbo, lute, Ayela Seidelman-’cello, Daniel Hoffman-violin, Adi Silberberg-recorders and Oren Fried-percussion.


“Seyfer Simkhes Haneyfesh” (The Book of the Rejoicing Soul) is an ancient book of Yiddish songs by Rabbi Elkhanan Kirchen, published in Germany some 300 years ago. Located in Oxford, UK, it has been studied in depth by Aleksander Fisz, who accompanied the evening with much information as to the songs, their musical styles, the texts themselves and the work undergone by him and his fellow musicians to decipher the notation and arrange the music in an acceptably authentic manner. Fisz is well familiar with the language used - West Yiddish - the language spoken by Jews in western- and central Europe at the beginning of the 18th century. He mentioned the various curious forms of notation found in the book, in his opinion, probably due to the copyist being more well-meaning than professional.  The songs are long, some having 20 or 30 verses, meaning that each is rich in information and they are written in skillful rhyme; despite the complexity of some of the melodies, they are morality songs to be sung in the Jewish home.


We heard the Di Tsaytmashin artists performing songs for various festivals. Woven through the songs’ Baroque-style European melodies were melodic motifs of Jewish music. A countertenor with access to the tenor and baritone range, Fisz’s presentation of each song is alive and articulate, also theatrical, and the arrangements allow for much individual solo expression on the part of each artist, for duet interaction and improvisation. In the song for Passover, for example, the text deals with practical details of the festival - the pre-Passover cleaning and even details regarding the baking of the unleavened bread and its enemies - mice, humidity, etc. The piece  begins with an embellished recorder solo melody (Silberberg), the melody then taken by the theorbo (Moscovitz) and followed by a ‘cello solo (Seidelman). The violin duets with the singer, after which the recorder interacts with Fisz. One of the most astounding pieces, indeed a whole small theatrical performance, is the song for New Year/Day of Atonement, a time whose main theme is the torture awaiting those who have sinned. The players set the scene of the Day of Reckoning with a ‘cello drone, a ghostly “screen” of mixed instrumental sound, a wailing sopranino recorder and a fateful slow drum beat (Fried). Fisz’s performance expresses frantic fear. Hoffman’s heart-rending violin solo is imbued with motifs of Jewish music. The piece’s major ending, however, reflects optimism, expressing the fact that whoever is devout will be saved. Fisz spoke of the book’s clumsy notation of the song for Purim. “Allow yourself the freedom to sing this song in Purim, when already drunk…” we read in the liner notes. The song’s ungainly notation seems to represent quarter tones in a piece imitating Turkish music and Fisz gives us a decidedly oriental interpretation of it as the instrumentalists let their hair down to evoke the jocular atmosphere of the traditional reading of the Book of Esther. We learn of another interesting ritual in a song to be sung to a bride as she is having her hair plaited: the wedding jester aims to make her cry as he tells her of the hardships of wedded life as a punishment for Eve’s deeds. Fisz gives a colorful rendering of the text as he enlists his large vocal range.


Avishai Aleksander Fisz is considered a leading authority in the field of Yiddish folk repertoire. Di Tsaytmashin was established by him in 2012 in order to perform the pieces from Kirchen’s fascinating and timeless “Book of the Rejoicing Soul”. The artists’ performance is informed, polished and entertaining, as it bristles with life and interest. The disc was recorded in 2014 for the Brilliant Classics label.



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