Akh, nit gut!From Yiddish Folk Poetry
Yiddish (folk) songs by Dmitri Shostakovich and Joel Engel
Album release on 5 February 2023, Amstelkerk, Amsterdam
... der bokher? uhm ...
... vi du bist mir nikhe, mayn likht, mayn shayn ...
... un tu af mir hofn ...
... un du, Yankl ...
... ikh on dir un du on mir ...
... nor efenen tu ikh dir nit! ...
... un ze, vi es mishn zikh ...
... Sore, shusterke ...
... Oy, akh byomeynu ...
Akh, nit gut!
Folk music has often been the inspiration for concert music, and many composers have used the enormous treasure trove of Yiddish folk music for their creations.
For this album we have chosen works by two composers with interesting parallels but many more differences. Joel Engel’s arrangements of Yiddish folksongs began a development that culminated in Shostakovich’s From Jewish Folk Poetry. Engel’s early songs are very close to the folk idiom – in fact they are the original folksongs with piano accompaniment. Shostakovich set the texts to music freely – albeit drawing richly from the sound world of Jewish music. While Engel, who later emigrated to Palestine, proudly and optimistically envisaged the creation of a “Jewish-national” music, Shostakovich wrote for a Soviet audience and had to endure his work being unexpectedly deemed dangerous because of a sudden anti-Semitic turn in cultural policy.
Performing Shostakovich’s cycle in Yiddish has long been a dream of mine. My first encounter with the cycle was an odd sort of revelation. I was reading the Lullaby for mezzo-soprano, and I thought: I know this song! – except I didn’t. It was a Yiddish folksong I knew and loved, on a poem by Sholem Aleichem – and yet it had another, Russian text, and a different melody. I was puzzled, and started researching the work to solve this enigma. Out of curiosity, I tried to see whether the Yiddish text I knew would work with Shostakovich’s melody. It was a wonderful fit.
A few years later, Norwegian soprano Elizaveta Agrafenina – then pursuing a Master’s degree at the Amsterdam Conservatory, now an accomplished artist with a passion for 20th and 21st century song repertoire – approached me to sing in the cycle, for her program Zwarte Avonden. She found a magnificent tenor to join us: Tyrone Landau, London-based opera singer and composer. Working with these two wonderful musicians on the songs was a gift from heaven, and soon we made plans to perform them in Yiddish. Using Joachim Braun’s underlay of the texts, we first sang the cycle in Yiddish in our 2018 program From Jewish Folk Poetry: Shostakovich and beyond, paired with the original folksongs, as well as settings of (often the same) Yiddish texts by other composers. In Dutch pianist Jaap Kooi we found the ideal partner to make each of these musical miniatures a small world on its own.
We love the Shostakovich cycle in Russian – but love it just a little more in Yiddish. The Yiddish texts bring the music closer to the original folk poetry, and taste differently in the mouth – they give it back its yidishn tam: simpler and at the same time richer in expression.
When we decided to record the cycle in Yiddish, we searched for vocal chamber music that could complete an album containing Shostakovich’s masterpiece. It was a hugely rewarding journey, and not only figuratively. It took Tyrone and me to an archive in Weimar, holding a wealth of works by composers from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music. We found wonderful material there, enough for more than just one album. We finally settled on Joel Engel’s songs, for their beauty and variety. We saw many parallels to the Shostakovich cycle; in fact, the different characters seemed to converse with each other. Could the “fallen” girl in Shpatsirn zaynen mir also be Khasye from A warning? Is it the same couple lamenting their separation in Engel’s Akh, nit gut and Shostakovich’s Before a long parting? Don’t the mothers’ words sound similar in Az ikh volt gehat dem keysers melukhe and in Shostakovich’s Lullaby?
The dramatic potential inherent to these songs made us want to stage them, even if only vocally; and soon enough Tyrone found himself adapting some of them for multiple voices. This not only made the Engel songs a fitting counterpart to the Shostakovich, but also opened the possibility of completing our ensemble with what we secretly missed a little bit in From Jewish Folk Poetry – a baritone. We found it in Pierre Mak, Dutch lied and oratorio singer, whose rich palette of vocal colours breathes life into each character he lends his voice to.
We are very grateful to all those who accompanied us on this journey, showed us the way, or paved it for us: Professor Dr. Jascha Nemtsov and Joachim Klein, who generously welcomed us to the archive in Weimar; YIVO for kindly letting us use their translations of most of the Engel songs, printed here with minor alterations; Dr. Alexandra Polyan for guiding me through the intricacies of Yiddish dialects; my dear friend Rabbi Marna Sapsowitz for helping me understand the religious connotations and biblical allusions in the texts; Jakko van der Heijden, the best recording engineer a musician could possibly wish for; and our friends and families for their endless patience and support.
I wish you as much pleasure listening to the songs as we had learning, performing, and recording them!
On the album:
Joel Engel: 12 songs from Yidishe folkslieder, 4 later Yiddish songs
Dmitri Shostakovich: From Jewish Folk Poetry, op 79. (sung in Yiddish)
Pierre’s passion for Lied has led him to perform many recitals, with an extra attention to the German Romantic and French repertoire. He has sung an extraordinary amount of oratorio performances and many operatic roles.
Norwegian soprano, Elizaveta Agrafenina is quickly becoming recognized for her musical versatility in a wide-ranging repertoire that spans the Baroque period through 21st century contemporary music.
Having started out as a pianist, Tyrone enjoyed considerable success as a tenor in traditional repertoire and also has extensive experience in contemporary music and opera. Tyrone has also maintained a buoyant career as composer for theatre, television and dance.
I am the initiator of this project. Born and raised in a Jewish family in Budapest, I became a classical singer and I live in Amsterdam. Yiddish songs are my heritage, art song is my profession, vocal chamber music is my passion – in Akh, nit gut! I can combine all of these.
Jaap Kooi’s profound knowledge of the different styles, the expressivity of his sound and affinnity with poetry make him an ideal partner for lied repertoire. And when the voice fails, his playing is bound to express what is beyond words.