Jewish Cabaret in Exile is the second Çedille CD from Chicago-based group New Budapest Orpheum Society, a chamber group devoted to reviving Jewish cabaret, a once-flourishing and widespread genre that was -- at least in Europe -- stifled out of existence through repression and extermination of Jews by the Nazi regime. In the United States what remained of the style was absorbed, by the 1940s, into Yiddish vaudeville, which played in New York communities and upstate in the Catskill resorts, transmogrifying into something not quite the same. Classic Jewish cabaret was decidedly a grown-up phenomenon; citified, politically outspoken and focusing directly on societal ills and ironies, whereas Yiddish vaudeville was generally purely escapist entertainment, with strong roots in Jewish traditions and often reflecting life in rural settlements, a culture gobbled up by the Second World War.
Interestingly, New Budapest Orpheum Society elects to open the program with the song cycle The Well-Furnished Morals, written by two non-Jews, Erich Kästner and Edmund Nick. Neither of these artists was exiled from their native Germany -- Kästner was the famous novelist who wrote Emil and the Detectives, and popular in Israel even when most German authors were shunned there, but both served as internal exiles during the Nazi period. First meeting in 1929, they were reunited after the war and overall Nick set some 60 lyrics of Kästner. The evocative, popularly oriented style of Nick is a perfect foil for Kästner's socially conscious, acerbic criticism and these songs decidedly serve as a strong opener to the program; those familiar with the collaboration of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill will find this cycle very enjoyable, though Nick's settings are not quite as terse and devoid of sentiment as Weill's. The rest of the show is subdivided into parts by topic and accompanied by a booklet so thick Çedille issued this release in a clamshell, even though the package contains only one disc. It traces the transformation of Jewish cabaret as its survivors spread far and wide and includes some music by composers and poets -- Viktor Ullmann, Mordechai Gebirtig, and Kurt Tucholsky -- who did not achieve exile, or as in Tucholsky's case, the asylum that full exile might have afforded. There is much Hanns Eisler on the disc, which ends with a couple of selections drawn from Friedrich Holländer's Hollywood period.
The group -- two singers, violin, piano, bass, and drums -- is authentic to the period and plays in a period style, though one wonders about the lack of clarinet. Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley sings sweetly in a manner reminiscent of ill-fated German cabaret star Carola Neher; likewise, baritone Stewart Figa is well-versed in the approach of classic Yiddish comic singers like Peisache Burstein and sings lustily, with loads of character. The main challenge with this program is that the material does not behave in regard to its presupposition; it is more different than alike, and even with the book in hand one wonders if all this stuff is truly meant to fit together; it doesn't seem to, and taking the disc by its topical subdivisions seems to be the best option. Nevertheless, the performances are splendidly enthusiastic and Çedille's recordings are very full and alive; if one's interest runs to historic Hebraic popular music, Jewish Cabaret in Exile is a good bet from a listening standpoint even if the extensive notes and content don't quite add up to an exposition of the given premise.