Composers: Korngold, Schulhoff, Desyatnikov
Performers: Hila Baggio s, Jerusalem Quartet
Catalogue Number: Harmonia Mundi HMM902631

Let’s be honest, straight off: if you’ve come to The Yiddish Cabaret expecting a Yiddish cabaret, prepare to be disappointed. Only Leonid Desyatnikov’s Five Songs for Voice and String Quartet can claim any direct association (and that at several steps removed) with the Weimar era being hymned by the disc’s title.

If Korngold’s Second String Quartet and Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet can claim only glancing connections with Yiddish culture (more than can be said for their cabaret credentials), what can’t be faulted is the Jerusalem Quartet’s committed, communicative playing.

Composed in 2018 and making their first appearance on disc, Desyatnikov describes his Five Songs as “free transcriptions” of Yiddish lyrics from pre-war Warsaw and Łódz´. They represent, he says, “the eclectic culture of the assimilantes, the lumpenproletariat and the outsiders, the culture of cheap chic, and at the same time – in its best forms – a brazen, talented culture full of self-irony and latent despair”.

Shifting between playfulness, bittersweet poignancy and vinegary trenchancy, there’s a pungent pointedness to Desyatnikov’s string writing, laced and barbed with caustic, ersatz-Weimar asides. It’s also vividly evocative, with Israeli soprano Hila Baggio taking to their assorted tales of prostitution, criminality and grinding poverty with obvious relish. Whether biting into the vernacular texts or allowing them to soar, she’s well-supported by the Jerusalem Quartet’s nimble, idiomatically alert strings.

There’s crisply delineated playing to be enjoyed, too, in Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet. Clothed in the garb of a Baroque dance suite, filled out with allusions to popular dance forms of the early 1920s, there’s more than a touch of self-medicating about its agitated earnestness. Notwithstanding its tangential relationship with Yiddish cabaret, it receives committed advocacy here.

What Korngold’s Second String Quartet is doing here is anybody’s guess. Composed in 1933, a decade after the Schulhoff, it’s Korngold in temporary thrall to Arnold Schoenberg but reluctant to let go of Richard Strauss. The miscegenated music that results is treated to keenly lyrical playing (although the Doric String Quartet on Chandos has the edge in ardency) with the opening Allegro elegantly voiced, the Intermezzo delightfully jaunty and carefree, the atmospheric Larghetto darkly poetic and the Waltz Finale lithely fluid and buoyant.

The obvious disconnect between title and program aside, these are fine performances caught in well-framed sound and worth investigating.

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