Forever to remember
Romeo Records 7287
Music to the Lyrics of Poet Yaakov Barzilai

Sharon Rostorf-Zamir, soprano
Hagai Yodan, piano

Israeli composers Ahron Harlap, Eugene Levitas, Stella Lerner and Israeli-American composer Sharon Farber have set a number of Barzilai's "Shoah" poems to music that is immeasurably touching and profoundly moving. Like Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, the musical works heard on this recording are emotionally engaging like no other musical works on the subject of personal loss. It is these poems that the four composers represented here have set to music. As one might expect the music throughout the disc is spare and scored for soprano accompanied by piano and variously including violin, cello, clarinet and oboe.

Yaakov Barzilai was only 12 years of age when the 2nd World War ended, and still a child, yet he was already old before his time. His childhood had been robbed from him; he survived the Holocaust. He had been incarcerated in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where his father and grandfather died. Making a vow * to himself in Israel that he would never forget the little childhood he had enjoyed before these terrible experiences had impinged, he wrote poetry that recalled those happy times in the Hungarian towns he’d known and the people he’d lived amongst. He also wrote poetry that reflected those darkest of times in the camp.

* "Forever to remember" - "I vowed seven decades ago. To remember my childhood home; my school-bench fellows; the synagogues; the lively, busy towns; the tunes of old; the anonymous heroes; jewish mothers; tender children. Talks with myself. Talks with God." - Yaakov Barzilai

The first group of three poems was set, using a quartet composed of piano, violin, cello and clarinet, by Israel-born American composer Sharon Farber who is well known in the USA as a composer of music for film and TV as well as for the concert hall. As with all the music on this disc, apart from one piece, these three are achingly heartfelt and poignant works that go together with the words that describe the horrors that became etched upon the mind of this innocent little boy whose life would never, could never, be the same and who, as a man, has used poetry as a conduit to give voice to these otherwise unspeakable nightmare memories. The booklet gives full texts of all the poems in both English and the original Hebrew. Sharon Farber is a composer whose music is well worth tracking down. All the music is highly effective in its service to the poetry. There is a kind of collective expression from the composers and I suppose that’s to be expected since all of it is extremely sad and deeply emotive.

Eugene Levitas likewise has written music that is also extremely concise and economic. His first piece takes the poem Like an Imprisoned Bird : “From behind the fence/I saw a balloon releasing itself/From the grasp of a child/And I envied it like an imprisoned bird”. It is set for soprano with piano and cello accompaniment and weaves a beautiful melody around this simple message. The third of his five pieces sets these words: “The wheat will still grow golden/The miller will still grind/The baker will still knead/And there is no one to offer/The blessing over the bread”, because it is a Jewish custom to do that. The title of the poem Jedwabne refers to a Polish village where the entire Jewish population were burned alive after being herded into a barn by their Polish neighbours. Thus another incredibly powerful and disturbing piece but set perfectly in order to highlight the frightful meaning. Barzilai’s poems are not without a terrible irony too as with Master of the Universe which says: ‘“Let there be Light!” He said/And there was light/And when He said “Darkness”/He created Auschwitz’.

Canadian Aharon Harlap, the third of the composers, has written music to accompany the words of nine of the poems, the first of which is the same that opened the disc. It is interesting to hear the difference in treatment between his setting and that by Sharon Farber, each serves the poem admirably. It is his setting of the poem Smell of Manure that is the only one that could be described as ‘lighter’ in tone, using a knockabout music hall/circus-inspired melody that reminded me of Shostakovich’s “Jazz Suites”, to point up the words, the meaning of which is just as terrible as the others.

Russian composer Stella Lerner provides a single work setting Barzilai’s poem Foreign Land. With soprano and piano she has written another powerfully expressed little piece that made me want to hear her music. The inspiration here is beauty rather than sadness. The last group of poems, set by Aharon Harlap again features music that, though sad, has a beauty that is engaging and infectious, this time using piano joined by oboe to accompany soprano Sharon Rostorf-Zamir. There is an ethereal quality here conjured by the oboe. It helps emphasise the tragic nature of the meaning behind the words. All the musicians involved play beautifully and Rostorf-Zamir’s voice is the perfect vehicle to carry home the terrifying message of the poems.

To sum up: the music here is of real quality. It shows how talented these composers are. They should be better known. The main thing is this disc has enabled Yaakov Barzilai to help fulfil his vow to help the process of remembering. Lest we forget? We must never forget!

Steve Arloff

Sharon Farber (b. 1968)
  1. Forever to Remember [9:27]
  2. Also the Ashes [4:06]
  3. I turned a Leaf [4:06]

With Orit Orbach, clarinet
Evgenia Epshtein, violin & Raz Kohn , cello

  4. Also the Ashes (read by the poet) [0:28]
  5. Until When? (read by the poet) [0:13]

Eugene Levitas (b. 1972)
  6. Like an Imprisoned Bird [1:45]
  7. Oblivious [2:43]
  8. Jedwabne [3:15]
  9. Master of The Universe [2:21]
10. Until When? [1:58]

With Felix Nemirovsky, cello

11. My Father Will No Longer Bless The Bread (read by the poet) [1:46]

Ahron Harlap (b. 1941)
12. Forever to Remember [7:00]
13. Smell of Manure [3:06]
14. Devil's Deed [1:56]
15. My Father Will No Longer Bless The Bread [8:00]

Stella Lerner (b. 1955)
16. Foreign Land [6:47]

Ahron Harlap (b. 1941)
17. The Yearnings Beggar [2:34]
18. Pictures from the Private Collection of God [4:15]
19. There Are No Stars in the Sky [2:55]
20. Bad Mother [3:29]
21. God's Stepdaughter [6:51]

With Dudu Carmel, oboe