The Great Cantors

Various Artists

album cover

The Prayer Leaders Sing

Behold a man singing with such force it sounds like his rib cage is rattling. And another who's so wrapped up in an ancient melody, he seems almost lost. And another whose prayer for sustenance and well-being comes across like crying and singing and begging all at once.

These men are Jewish cantors, spirit guides who sing the forever questing prayers that frame Hebrew services. Their music is mostly made by a lone solo voice, sometimes supported by a choir; when a cantor performs in concert, the accompaniment may expand to include piano or organ. Their material is drawn from prayer texts—the songs here seek blessings for the month ahead ("Yehi rotzon milfonecho" is sung by Gershon Sirota, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943), mark important festivals (Salomo Pinkasovicz's "Ochiloh loeil"), and are heard at the start of Morning Prayers (Hermann Fleishmann's "Toras haschem t'mimo").

This anthology offers stellar performances from eight of the legendary cantors of the twentieth century. Each has his own way of interpreting and embellishing text: Joseph Rosenblatt, who was born in Ukraine and emigrated to the U.S. in 1912, dashes off marvelously intricate spiraling lines that have the immediacy of jazz improvisation; Fleishmann, a lyric baritone, sings with a sober, earthbound deliberation. The strategies may be different, but the end result in each case is the same: Through these voices comes trembling and thundering affirmation of life.

Asked by The New York Times to share some of his favorite recordings, jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman (see p. 181) chose Rosenblatt's devotional incantations heard here: "He's making the sound of what he's experiencing as a human being, turning it into the quality of his voice."

Genre: World, Hebrew
Released: 1990, Pearl
Key Tracks: Joseph Rosenblatt: "Av horachamim," "Tikanto Shabbos." David Roitman: "V'haarev no." Berele Chagy: "In shenkel arein." Hermann Fleishmann: "Toras haschem t'mimo"
Next Stop: Laura Wetzler: Kabbalah: Songs of the Jewish Mystics
After That: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Mustt Mustt.
Book Pages: 813–814

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