The 2018 Ashkenaz Festival opened last night at Koerner Hall with a concert titled Yiddish Glory. The background can be found in my preview post about it. So last night four vocalists and an assortment of instrumentalists performed nineteen numbers from the collection. They date from 1942; when the outcome of the Great Patriotic war was far from certain, to 1947; when it was already won. The bulk date from 1944/5; when the outcome was clear though maybe not the costs still to be borne.
What can we say about the songs? They are unique in my experience. I’ve probably heard my share of popular songs from the two great wars of the 20th century and from earlier periods but I’ve never heard anything like these. “Soldiers’ songs” tend to be sentimental (Tipperary, Lilli Marlene), ironic (They were only playing leapfrog), nationalistic (Die Wacht am Rhein) or scatological (find your own examples). There are elements of all of these in the Yiddish Glory material but there’s also a brutality that, while it echoes official Soviet literature of the period (Ehrenburg, Simonov etc), it’s most unusual in popular song. An example, and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have the exact lyrics to hand, would be a song purporting to be a letter to her man at the front. It goes something like “I long for your return dear Mishka, but do not come back to me until the last German is dead.” It’s a testament to the horror of the German invasion and the spirit that it inspired: The spirit that ultimately allowed the Red Army and the people of the Soviet Union to defeat Germany and fascism (these songs, rightly, make no distinction between the two). There’s also much praise for Stalin which is, of course, ironic in view of what was to come just a little later.
As to the music, it was mostly folk themes or well known Russian tunes. It wasn’t entirely clear from Anna Shternshis’ excellent introductions how much had actually been inferred from the Kiev archive and how much was creative guesswork. It worked well enough and with a largish and amplified band sounded kind of klezmerish. The four vocalists; Psoy Korolenko, Sasha Lurie (stepping in for an indisposed Sophie Milman, 15 year old Isaac Rosenberg (and isn’t that a name to live up to when one sings of arms and the man?) and Sergei Erdenko were all excellent. Korolenko injected a very Jewish humour into everything he did and I could listen to Larian’s smokey mezzo for ever. It’s definitely a “two packs a day” instrument. The band was virtuosic and incredibly “in the moment”. My only criticism would be that I thought that they were over-amped for Koerner and the balance was off. I wish I could have heard more of Julian Milkis on clarinet.
Minor criticisms aside, this was a fascinating and deeply moving evening. Fascism is still all too with us and these songs remind us why it must not be tolerated.
Photos when I get them.