Songs of Exaltation and Exile

thIn 1492 Columbus discovered America, and those Jews who had not been forcefully converted to Christianity or had been tortured to death and burned at the stake in public killings called Autos de Fé, were expulsed from Spain, bereft of their possessions, but firmly holding on to their greater earthly treasures: their culture, their language, their customs, and, most important, their spiritual beliefs.

Off they journeyed, spreading out far and wide all over the Mediterranean, southward into North Africa, eastward to Greece and Turkey, where they settled and eventually integrated into their host communities although not wishing to be assimilated at the expense of a loss of ethnic identity.

An old Spanish saying says it best: “Juntos, pero no revueltos” (together but not scrambled).

What better safeguard from cultural corruption is there than preserving one’s mother language – the Ladino tongue, spoken by the Jews of Spain centuries ago and still spoken, written and read among Sephardic Jews!

The sum total of the songs of the Sephardim is a treasure trove of lyric poetry and a repository of melodic strains the world over, and Countertenor Yaniv d’Or and the one-of-a-kind Ensemble Naya have made it their mission to preserve these gems by performing and recording them in several CD’s.

In Exaltation (Naxos 8.573980), Eyal Leber, Amit Tiefenbrunn, Marvin Dillmann, Erez Mounk, Murat Cakmaz, Nadav Ovadia, and Bari Moscovitz put to wondrous work the classical guitar, the flamenco guitar, the viola da gamba, the didgeridoo, the shofar, the ney, the psalterium, the theorbo, and an assortment of percussion instruments to joyfully take us on a journey of celebration that travels musically to 13th century Christian Spain, to 16th century France and Italy, to Libya, to Turkey, and on to our time.

In lesser hands this assemblage could have amounted to a tuneful grab-bag, but the peerless Ensemble Naya turns it into a memorable artistic experience.

In both Exaltation and in Ladino, Ladino (Naxos 8.573566) the Ensemble Naya expands to include a superb group of players of Baroque instruments from Amit Tiefenbrunn’s Israeli group Barrocade, including Alon Portal, Sonia Navot, Shlomit Sivan, Thomas Boysen, Jacob Reuven, Adi Silverberg, Yizhar Kershon, Gilar Dobrecki, Shai Kribus, and Tiefenbrunn.

Surprisingly eclectic, the group opts to include Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la vida, and Albeniz’ Asturias – two most welcome choices in a collection of music about displacement in the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem worlds.

When many a singer of his range often adopts a straight, vibrato-less vocal emission in order to achieve accuracy in the very difficult repertory in which countertenors sing, the peerless Yaniv d’Or utilizes a full palette of vocal colors, switching in chameleon-like fashion from the simplicity required by the medieval Cantigas de Santa Maria to the Early Baroque sobriety of Girolamo Frescobaldi’s Se l’aura spira, to the folk-inflected flavor of Manuel de Falla’s Nana.

Quite extraordinarily, d’Or never falters technically, landing always squarely on pitch, rising and falling evenly throughout his range, agile and supple in all passagework, and fully committed to the texts in the multiple languages in which he sings.

Both these CD’s are marvelously engineered, and come with excellent liner notes. My request: next CD, please include translations of the songs.

Rafael de Acha

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