Faith alone cant lift cantors CD into greatness

First came the Three Tenors. Then the Three Sopranos, followed by the Three Irish Tenors. Could the Three Cantors have been far behind?

Indeed, they made their TV debut last fall in “Cantors: A Faith in Song.” The PBS concert special featured a trio of acclaimed chazzans: Naftali Hershtik, chief cantor of the Great Synagogue, Jerusalem; Benzion Miller, cantor of the Young Israel Beth-El of Borough Park, Brooklyn; and Alberto Mizrahi, cantor of the Anshe Emet Synagogue, Chicago.

True to form, the CD of the concert is now available, and the results are decidedly mixed.

Supported by the 40-piece Netherlands Theatre Orchestra and 16-voice Ne’imah Singers choir, the concert offered an evening of Jewish cantorial and secular music, sung in Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino, and recorded live in Amsterdam’s historic Portuguese Synagogue.

The TV special was rather workmanlike, and the CD is no different. There are occasional flourishes of brilliance and deep emotion, but unfortunately too few for a hefty 73 minutes of music.

Not that the cantors are poor singers. Each is great, and capable of the most stirring vocal art. The problem lies in the eclectic nature of the selections and the potential dangers in turning liturgy and lullabies into large-scale concert pieces: Before you know it, they can become inappropriately operatic.

But first, the good news. Most of the CD’s 18 songs are familiar to Jewish listeners, and the comfort factor helps. With Benedict Weisser’s arrangements backing them up, the cantors deliver steady, stately performances throughout. And it sure is hard to mess up songs like “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”

A medley of Ladino songs, featuring lilting guitar flourishes, is an exotic treat to Ashkenazi ears, while the dramatic seven-minute “Habet” is a masterful Puccini-flavored triumph, perhaps the most enthralling track of all.

In fact, the cantors shine best on the liturgical selections, those being their natural habitat. It’s hard to surpass their performances of “Kol Nidre” and the “Kaddish” (although the orchestration on the latter proves a bit sluggish). The lengthy “V’Lirushalayim Ircho,” sung largely a cappella with soloist and choir, is a textbook-perfect example of dramatic tension building to a spectacular musical climax.

Similarly powerful are pieces like “Yedid Nefesh” and “Avinu Malkenu,” performed as vocal duets or trios. Most of the time, the singers blend well, but occasionally they jostle for vocal unity in a cantorial clash of the Titans.

Unfortunately, several tracks fail to catch fire. The Yiddish classic “Oyfn Pripitchik” is here given an underwhelming performance, especially when the singer switches to English. Not only is the song utterly lost in translation, the cantor’s stilted accent makes him sound more Puerto Rican than landsman.

Likewise “Rozhinkes mit Mandeln” (“Raisins and Almonds”), normally a beautiful lullaby, is botched here. It’s too intimate a song for this kind of grand recital. Miniature versions of “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” and “Tzena Tzena” are too frenzied and screechy, and the overbaked Kurt Weill-flavored take on “Tumbalalika” makes for too flaccid a finale.

It would be nice to report which cantor sings which song, but there’s no way to tell. The CD liner notes are shamefully lacking in information, such as listing the soloists track-by-track (this problem disappears if one is watching the TV special, which is also available on DVD). Non-Jews or uninformed Jews are left in the dark, as the liner notes give no explanation of what the pieces represent. The given transliterations and skimpy translations just don’t cut it.

No question, the cantors sing with all possible kavanah. Equally true, the songs presented on this CD have long been concert staples. Past opera stars like Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker were in fact cantors themselves in former lives, only proving there is a living link between the bimah and the concert stage. Sadly, enjoyable as much of it is, the “Cantors: A Faith in Song” CD is somehow missing a chromosome.

The Cantors: A Faith in Song,” TV Matters Recordings (CD, $17.98, DVD, $19.98).

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.