Dessau: Hagadah Shel Pessach

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LABELS: Capriccio
WORKS: Hagadah Shel Pessach
PERFORMER: Bernd Weikl, (baritone), Gabriel Sade (tenor), Matthias Hölle, Alfred Muff, Johann Tilli (bass)NDR Choir, Carl Maria von Weber Men’s Choir, Berlin, Hamburg Alsterspatzen, Hamburg State PO/Gerd Albrecht
Thanks largely to Decca’s ‘Entartete Musik’ series, we are becoming far more aware of the richness and diversity of German music that was proscribed by the Nazis. But other record companies have been equally enterprising in exploiting this field, none more so than Capriccio, whose world premiere recording of Paul Dessau’s oratorio Hagadah Shel Pessach is an event of considerable historical importance.


Composed during the mid-Thirties in Paris, where Dessau was a refugee from Nazi Germany, the oratorio is based on a liturgical text describing the exodus from Egypt, which is recited annually at the Jewish festival of Passover. It was intended for performance by the Jewish Cultural League, an organisation set up to provide an official outlet to dispossessed Jewish artists and musicians. However, historical circumstances conspired against the work being heard for nearly sixty years.


With the benefit of hindsight, listening to Dessau’s oratorio for the first time is bound to be a disturbing experience. Indeed, the work’s closing section, with its defiant optimism, and prophecy of freedom from oppression, has a particularly tragic ring in the light of the Holocaust. The music itself is of a more variable quality – moments of great inspiration, such as the Midnight Hymn in Part 2, rub shoulders with material that is less involving. Yet despite my qualms, this work is certainly worth hearing, and the live recording under Gerd Albrecht communicates immense power and commitment. Erik Levi