Leo Zeitlin: Yiddish Songs, Chamber Music and Declamations

Volume One: Russian Jewish Classics

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LABELS: Toccata Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Leo Zeitlin: Yiddish Songs, Chamber Music and Declamations
WORKS: Yiddish Songs, Chamber Music and Declamations
PERFORMER: Rachel Calloway (mezzo-soprano), Guenko Guechev (baritone), Daniella Rabbani (speaker); Musicians of the Pittsburgh Jewish Musical Festival


Before his emigration to New York in 1923, the Russian-born composer Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930) was one of the leading figures in the short-lived Society for Jewish Folk Music in St Petersburg which existed from 1908 to around 1919. Although highly venerated by his contemporaries, Zeitlin was quickly forgotten after his premature death, and the few compositions that have survived were only recently discovered thanks to the efforts of the musicologist, Paula Eisenstein Baker.

This enterprising and comprehensively documented CD features a judicious mixture of his chamber works, Yiddish song arrangements and declamations with piano. Zeitlin’s writing for strings in particular is extremely resourceful and imaginative in colouring the various different settings. However, devoting a whole disc to music that focuses almost exclusively on the minor-key mode and communicates a message of unremitting despair and suffering seems to be self-defeating. Ideally, it would have been better to offer more emotional contrast than the brief if upbeat arrangement of Kreisler’s Wiener Volkslied for string quartet.


Nevertheless, mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway projects the music with real passion and commitment, and the string players provide expressive support, even though they are not helped by a rather dry, unatmospheric recording. Another slight concern, which is particularly evident in the Declamations for speaker and piano, is the rather out-of-tune state of the middle register of the piano. Erik Levi