The Yiddish-language culture that flourished in Europe and America between the world wars is better known for its literary and cinematic manifestations than for works in the realm of classical music, but in this field, too, Jewish creative artists made distinctive contributions. The Yiddish art songs heard on this disc had their own generic classification (they were called lider). Their composer, Lazar Weiner, emigrated from Kiev to the U.S. in 1919 as a result of religious persecution; he had a Ukrainian conservatory education, and it was not until he came to America that he really discovered Yiddish literature and Jewish folklore. He also wrote a good deal of choral music in Yiddish.
These are genuine art songs, with equal roles for singer and piano, rather than simple folkloristic settings. The various parts of Weiner's conservatory education show through the music in turn; he sounds at times like Mussorgsky (the biggest influence), like Brahms, and, perhaps more surprisingly, like Fauré. But the folk music of Eastern European Jews flavors all of his music and ties it together. He does not quote actual folk songs ("If I need a traditional melody, I create my own," he said) but rather creates a distinctive melodic vocabulary shaped by the Yiddish language as well as by the nuances of traditional music.
The texts are by various poets and cover a huge range of subjects, from world events to lullabies to religious themes. Several songs are delightfully humorous; sample track 17, Der Yid mitn Fidl (The Jew with the Fiddle), with its Bickersons-like but not overbroad depiction, completely without recourse to the language of Broadway musical comedy, of a musician husband nagged toward more practical activities by his wife. A variety of performers are featured on this disc, which draws from recordings made between 1972 and 2001, but several are relatives or associates of Weiner, and all display obvious sympathy with and enthusiasm for his music. A detailed booklet goes deep into Weiner's fascinating career, which included stints as a silent film accompanist and as the director of a left-wing workers' chorus. This rather offbeat release ought to find an audience, not just among students of Jewish musical history, but also among lovers of art songs of any stripe.