Sep 8, 2016

ALL VOWS + Historical Recordings of Kol Nidre

I'm revisiting and updating a post from three years ago about the collaboration between cellist Maya Beiser and filmmaker Bill Morrison, since the two principals are now unfurling new work. Beiser performs at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York on September 13, playing music from her new album TranceClassical (Innova Recordings #932); Morrison premiered his feature-length Dawson City: Frozen Time at the Venice Film Festival this week and it plays the New York Film Festival on October 2 and 4.

Here are the trailers for both artists.


The new album is directly connected to the post below, which is all about the pieces entitled All Vows and the many recordings inspired by the Yom Kippur declaration Kol Nidre. Both the Michael Gordon composition "All Vows" discussed below and a new piece called "Kol Nidrei" appear on TranceClassical (with a version of Lou Reed's "Heroin" in between). The new interpretation is from composer Mohammed Fairouz and features Beiser singing the Aramaic text. She tells me in an e-mail she will play "All Vows" at the New York show, but it will be accompanied by a video created for the new album and not by "Bill Morrison's gorgeous film which you have helped commissioning." She refers to the premiere at the "Orphans Midwest" symposium, for which Jon Vickers of Indiana University Cinema joined with the Robert A. and Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program to commission Morrison's All Vows film. The project was also supported by Indiana University’s New Frontiers in the Arts & Humanities Program and College of Arts & Humanities Institute. (It takes a village.)

* * * * * *

All Vows: The Film, the Music + Historical Recordings of Kol Nidre

Bill Morrison's new film-to-HD transmogrification of materiality into the ineffable, All Vows,  finds moving images to accompany composer Michael Gordon's musical composition of the same name, first performed in 2006 (although Gordon has revised the piece for 2014). Cellist Maya Beiser, for whom Gordon wrote "All Vows," premiered the work at Zankel Hall in New York, part of her program "Almost Human."

The New York Times review of that performance noted:
Electronics play a more vital role . . . in Michael Gordon's "All Vows," a reimagination of Kol Nidre, the central prayer of the Yom Kippur service. Ms. Beiser played a plaintive, arpeggiated line amid a variegated electronic cloak woven mostly of voices, and against an attractively simple video by Luke DuBois.
 *         * A Conversation of Cultures, Spoken Through a Cello's Voice," March 11, 2006.

I haven't seen Mr. DuBois's attractively simple video. But it's safe to say (based on Morrison's past films and DuBois's videos -- 51 of which are excerpted here -- that Mr. Morrison's source materials and aesthetic will bring a much different visualization to the Gordon-Beiser piece. Both media artists have collaborated with the Bang on a Can All-Stars (see again Gordon, Beiser) on multimedia musical presentations. But DuBois works more closely with computer music and digital video; Morrison with film qua film: good old-fashioned nitrate cellulose material, infamous for its unquenchable flammability and chemical decomposition. It was that decaying quality that brought forth the Gordon-Morrison collaboration Decasia, one of the most celebrated experimental film works of the new century.

For the spiritual, religious, ancient, reflective, somber substance of Kol Nidre, Morrison's return to images taken from decaying 35mm films makes sense. As momento mori, few things better conjure up thoughts of mortality than a life recorded on film curiously decomposing. Although the chemical breakdown of film emulsion lying on a nitrate base can lead to the erasure of any recognizable trace of an original photographic image, Morrison's images are seldom abstract. They are moments carefully selected for their uncanny impact.

Here's a Morrison sample from the forthcoming All Vows.

courtesy of Bill Morrison

Few things are more ghostly or, in this case, we might even say scary. Only a phantom of a human figure remains. Nothing is digitally manipulated in these swirls and naturally occurring "brush strokes."

To return to the musical qualities of the traditional Kol Nidre invocation of Yom Kippur, since a Beiser recording of Gordon's "All Vows" is not yet available, we can prepare for it with a reminder of other musical interpretations. And indeed to a landmark of cinema.

Below is singer Al Jolson's Kol Nidre, in a semi-synchronous portion of what is often mistakenly referred to as the first "talkie."  Two minutes from The Jazz Singer, with the jazz singer Jack Robin honoring his cantor father's dying wish, returning to his synagogue as Jakie Rabinowitz.

Twenty years later, Jolson released this remarkable recording, "Kol Nidrei" on Decca Records (4200 LX 4698). (The flip side of the 78rpm disc was entitled "Cantor on the Sabbath," sung in Yiddish. The Kol Nidrei is in Aramaic.) The basso reach of Jolson's voice is the unexpected part, particularly given that he was then 61.

Other significant historical recordings of this music can be heard on the Library of Congress's fabulous resource, the National Jukebox. All three Kol Nidres are from Victor records (Victor Talking Machine Co.).

* A 1912 recording by violinst Maximillian Pilzer, with piano accompaniment, listed in the Victor catalog as Plegaria hebraica. 

* Cantor Josef Rosenblatt sings Kol Nidre in Hebrew on a 1913 record, accompanied by organ.

* Rosenblatt's "Die Neuer 'Kol Nidre'" recorded in English in 1923, with an ensemble (violin, viola, cello, flute, and organ) conducted by Victor's musical director Nathaniel Shilkret.

Josef "Yossele" Rosenblatt was a popular singer ("the Jewish Caruso") and recording artist until his death in 1933, as well as the leading cantor of his era. From the foreword to his book Selected Recitatives by Cantor Yosef Rosenblatt for the Synagogue (1927):

He performed as himself in The Jazz Singer (1927).  In this scene, Jolson's title character attends a Rosenblatt concert of sacred songs, thereby preparing for his return to sing Kol Nidre in his father's synagogue.

As Hillel Tryster points out, he died while in Palestine to make one of the earliest sound films produced there.

Released in 1934 as The Dream of My People (Halome Ami, Palestine-American Film Co.), the movie was narrated in English by Zvee Scooler, later a familiar character actor in American movies. The National Center for Jewish Film restored this, as well as other films dealing with Kol Nidre. In the 1940 Yiddish film Overture to Glory (Der Vilner Shtot Khazn, aka Der Vilner Balebesl) singing star Moishe Oysher plays a cantor who becomes an opera sensation before ultimately returning to his Vilnius synagogue, where he joins the singing of Kol Nidre -- and dies at its conclusion!  (Watch the un-restored movie ending here.)

Oysher recorded an LP, Kol Nidre Night (Rozanna Records, 195?) Audio here.

The NCJF also produced the DVDs Great Cantors of the Golden Age (1990), with the track "Cantor Adolph Katchko – Kol Nidre (1937)" and Great Cantors in Cinema (1993), with a selection of Rosenblatt in The Dream of My People and Oysher's Kol Nidre from Overture to Glory. These were re-released as a double DVD in 2006.

Finally, the magazine Reform Judaism (Fall 2007) compiled a great annotated list of "Ten Kol Nidre Tracks." Here's my condensation of the ten citations, with some amplifications and additional metadata.

1. Alberto Mizrahi, Greek-born tenor, with the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble. The Birthday of the World: Music and Traditions of the High Holy Days: Part II: Yom Kippur (Western Wind, 1996), narrated by Leonard Nimoy! 

 2. Spanish-Portuguese sung by Abraham Lopes Cardozo (Congregation Shearith Israel, NYC) (private recording). See also, sung in Hebrew, the CD album The Western Sephardi Liturgical Tradition (Jewish Music Research Centre, 2004; SISU Home Entertainment, 2006).

 3. Cantor Manfred Lewandowski (1895-1970), late 19th-century arrangement by German composer Louis (Eliezer) Lewandowski. On Great Synagogue Composers, Vol. X (Musique International, 1979; CD 1989). Out of print. But available online at Judaica Sound Archives (Florida Atlantic University Libraries). Sung in Hebrew, with organ accompaniment by Franz Doll. PDF of original liner notes. No date is given for the audio recordings, which came from the private collection of Joseph Greene, and from New York Public Library's Benedict Stambler Memorial Archives.  Nimbus 7096 CD Legendary Cantors (2000) reproduces a 78 rpm recording of Kol Nodre by "Manfred Lewandowsky," but only dates the compilation as recorded between 1908 and 1947. Other Lewandowski recordings appear on Vorbei -- Beyond Recall (BCD 16030, 2001), a CD issued by the German label Bear Family Records, which describes its content as "a record of Jewish musical life in Nazi Berlin, 1933-1938."
[Addendum: As R. S. Hillel Tryster (former director of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive in Jerusalem) offers in this comment below, cantor/baritone Lewandoski in his later years hurt his voice by trying to sing tenor to please American congregations. Tryster's fond memory -- hearing the Gregor Piatigorsky cello version as a 78 rpm disc on his grandmother's gramophone -- brings us back to the cello motif that emerged in this blog report about Kol Nidre (all vows), Morrison's new film All Vows, the Orphans Midwest Films for Cello program, and cellist Maya Beisier's upcoming All Vows tour.]

Here's a 1941 verision on Decca, cello solo with piano and organ. Judaica Sound Archives has kindly merged the A and B sides for us.

On the Internet Archive, there's this 1947 recording of Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Max Bruch's "Kol Nidrei, Adagio on Hebrew Melodies, Op. 47," with Piatigorsky on cello, of course.

Ah! But here ("archived" as a .rar file), from a website in Russian (, is a reproduction of the 78 Tryster inherited from his grammy's gramophone: the B side of a 1929 Odeon recording.

Piatigorsky and his cello can be seen as well as heard playing Kol Nidre in a documentary for the Jewish Chautauqua Society, Choose Life (1976). I haven't seen the film, but a book of the same title has this to say about it:

It is the eve of Yom Kippur, 1973, and Gregor Piatigorsky, the world-renowned cellist, is introduced by Rabbi Nussbaum and begins the Kol Nidre. Half way around the world the Arabs have launched their attack on Israel. This is the first time Piatigorsky has played in a synagogue, and significantly he is playing Kol Nidre, which Tolstoy said described the "martyrdom of a grief stricken people". As that magnificent music is played so eloquently and heart-rending by Piatigorsky, the rabbi is giving his sermon, which that night was entitled "Choose Life," and which he says is our prayer for peace. 
Terry King's book Gregor Piatigorsky: The Life and Career of the Virtuoso Cellist (2010) says only Choose Life shows him playing portions of Bruch's Kol Nidrei "interspersed within a historical backdrop." The JCS Facebook page says the film "relates the modern relevance of the Yom Kippur liturgy," and was given awards at the New York International Film Festival.

There are at least 25 Kol Nidrei recordings on Judaica Sound Archives.

Another is here: Pablo Casals's "solo on violincello" (with orchestra accompaniment) in 1914. Columbia A5722. And on YouTube, there's a copy of the sublime Casals recording of the Bruch, with piano accompaniment, from 1923 (Columbia 68019-D).

 4. Richard Tucker, with organ and choral accompaniment on the LP Kol Nidre Service (Columbia Records, 1978). Setting by composer Sholom Secunda. The Secunda setting was also used in the Yiddish-language film Kol Nidre  (dir. Joseph Seiden, 1939) restored in 2012 by the National Center for Jewish Film. Now available in Blu-Ray and DCP!

Apparently the Secunda setting was also used in the 1930 short Kol Nidre (Judea Films, Inc.; produced by Seiden, dir. Sidney M. Goldin). [Is the 1930 film extant?]

 5. Cantor Lisa Levine, setting by Samuel Adler. Gems of the High Holy Days (Transcontinental Music, 1999).

 6. The Immortal Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt (Cantors Assembly, 2007), 6-CD set, includes the 1913 recording heard (above) on the LOC National Jukebox.

 7. Haifa Symphony Orchestra, Jewish Prayers (Mace Records, 1965?). Max Bruch’s setting of "Kol Nidrei" (sic) for cello. Soloist Hamissa Dor . Out of print LP.

 8. The 6th movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in C# minor, Op. 131 (1826). On, for example, Emerson String Quartet, Beethoven: The Late String Quartets (Deutsche Grammophon, 2003).

 9. The Electric PrunesRelease of an Oath: The Kol Nidre (Reprise, 1968). In English.

In spirit of the times, here's the liner note to this LP, written by someone named Jules B. Newman (about whom I can find no information).
Through the centuries and out of the travail of the past, man has many times, in his search for a better life, been forced by powers beyond his control to foreswear the principles of his fathers and to accept the yoke of a conqueror who might vanquish his body, but not his soul. But no man of principle can live with himself having foresworn the ideals that he lives by. In yearning to free his spirit of the conqueror's yoke, he has conjured up a psychological release that enables him to break the chains that bind him to any oath made under duress and in violation of his principles. Such a lament is the Kol Nidre - a prayer of antiquity which cleanses the spirit and enables man to start anew, with his eyes again on the stars.  
This, then, is the music of the Kol Nidre, which is as modern and meaningful today as when it was first written. David Axelrod has brought the music into a contemporary stance by blending the melodies of the centuries with today's contemporary sounds. David Hassinger has taken the efforts of David Axelrod and, with his provocative talents, has in turn blended them into this artful presentation by The Electric Prunes.

 10. For sitar! Nicolas Jolliet, "The Jolliet Kol Nidre," Kol Nidre Goes East (2006). Independently released MP3.

And this media archaeology about the presence of Kol Nidre ends with another surprising turn -- in an Afghanistan war zone in 2009. The Jolliet sitar version of the incantation led the Canadian Broadcast Corporation to produce this radio documentary -- The Kol Nidre in Kabul -- for its series Outfront. Listen at

Producer Harold Levy wrote on the website words we might think serendipitous with the creation of Michael Gordon's "All Vows" and the new All Vows by Bill Morrison and cellist Maya Beiser.
The Kol Nidre has exercised a powerful religious and musical influence over the centuries. One of the adjectives most commonly used to describe the Kol Nidre -- the opening prayer recited on the eve of Yom Kippur -- is “haunting”. The great cellist Jacqueline Du Pré is said to have asked that her recording of Kol Nidre be played by her bedside as she lay dying. “She knew music, and she knew her urgent need: to hear the haunting strains of this mysterious, magical melody, leading into a personal and communal song of remembrance and of promise”, a writer Joann G. Breuer] noted. Other commonly used adjectives include “plaintive”, “meditative”, “intoxicating” and “liberating." 
Here is one of many Web links to: Jacqueline Du Pré's recording of Max Bruch's Kol Nidrei, Op. 47, Adagio on Hebrew Themes for Cello and Orchestra (1881), performed with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and her newly-wed husband Daniel Barenboim. The EMI recording is from 1968, when Du Pré was 23 years old. She made her last cello recordings in 1971 and died of multiple sclerosis in 1987, at age 42.

Her earlier recording was made in 1963. Herbert Downes and Jacqueline Du Pré, Bruch "Kol Nedrei" on the LP Music for Viola and Cello.

His Master's Voice, CSD-1499, UK (1963 LP)  ****  EMI Classics, Bruch: Kol Nidrei (2002)

 In 2007, EMI Classics issued the CD box set Jacqueline Du Pré: The Complete Recordings (#04167) -- with 17 discs!  

Du Pré               ||           Beiser


-- Dan Streible