Brilliant Violinist Alicia Svigals and Pianist Uli Geissendoerfer Reinvent Haunting Songs Rescued From the Holocaust

by delarue

Moshe Beregovski was sort of the Soviet Alan Lomax. But there were a couple of major differences in the careers of the 20th century’s two greatest musicologists. Lomax received deservedly worldwide acclaim for sleuthing out folk tunes across the country, and eventually around the globe. And some of the artists he discovered, like Muddy Waters, became stars.

Beregovski, whose research and sense of adventure were just as keen, paid with his life, and most of the folk musicians he recorded were murdered. They were killed in the Holocaust; Beregovski, his health shattered after a long, brutal prison term in the gulag, died broke and virtually unknown in 1961. His crime? Recording Jewish music. 

Since Beregovski’s archives in the Ukraine were rediscovered in the 1990s, musicians from around the world have plunged into a world that was for a long time thought to have been lost forever. Now, iconic klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals – a founding member of the Klezmatics – and perennially eclectic pianist Uli Geissendoerfer have teamed up for a brand-new album, The Beregovski Suite, a frequently radical reinvention of a total of seventeen rare songs from the archive. The result is a gorgeous, chillingly bittersweet triumph of daunting scholarship and lyrical musicianship – if you think Svigals was pretty sensational in the Klezmatics, wait til you hear her now. They’re playing the album release show tonight, Feb 4 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub; cover is $20. With songs like these, who needs the Super Bowl?

These melodies leap out at you. We’re used to hearing poorly digitized , probably fourth or fifth-generation copies of this stuff, which was recorded on the fly  to begin with. This album  has a breathtakingly immediate, pristine quality. Although there’s accordion here – Iliya Magalnik is featured on several tracks – the presence of the piano adds considerable majesty and unexpectedly syncretic accents from around the world to the material.

The album – which isn’t officially out yet and hasn’t hit the usual online spots – opens with Lightning, a brisk minor-key dance. Svigals’ sinewy, bounding lines and shivery melismas soar over the pulse of the accordion, the piano anchoring the music with a heavy-spring bounce. Svigals throws off sparks of microtones throughout Dawn, a neoromantic waltz, Geissendoerfer switching between piano and toy piano to ramp up the surrealism. The brooding Lament For a King makes a good segue, Geissendoerfer’s low-key chords behind Svigals’ meticulous yet ferally tremoloing ornamentation.

By contrast, Iliyad, another waltz, has a playful, almost devious strut which becoms more wistful when the accordion kicks in; then the piano leads the rest of the group in an unexpectedly Lynchian direction. It will give you goosebumps.

The bracing Fugue for B has a cleverly acerbic baroque arrangement, Svigals digging in with a practically crushing intensity on the final verse, up to a spine-tingling coda. She reins in her melismatics somewhat for the quieter but no less plaintive, somewhat prayerful take of The Plea.

The surrealism reaches even higher with the disjoined intro of First Night, its uneasy close harmonies smoothing out into a jaunty, celebratory dance. The revelry continues with Market Day, with Vanderlei Pereira on pandeiro, Geissendoerfer adding an unexpected ragtime interlude. Getting groceries has never been so much fun! His jazz voicings contrast with Svigals’ mesmerizing, edgy chromatics and microtones throughout The Lover’s Dance, a slow, moody hora intro of sorts.

Rumshinky’s Bulgar, by Joseph Rumshinsky, comes across as a mashup of the early 20th century Jewish vaudeville that he made his name in and the darker – dare one say more relevant? – sounds of the old country. The duo go deep into that milieu with the plaintive Winter Dance, its wintry pizzicato and eerie belltone piano.

The duo follow Patshtants, an insistent, pulsing miniature in the Middle Eastern freygish scale, with the lively peek-a-boo phrasing of Kinder in Shul – yeah, these kids are up to no good. Svigals takes a rare turn on vocalese in Conversation With the Rebbe, s shapeshifting, pensively dynamic  minor-key song.

A Hero’s Report has an aptly emphatic intensity; after that, the unexpected Celtic tinges of Big Bear come as quite a surprise. The album concludes with a brief reprise of the opening tune. On one hand, this is the kind of salute that Beregovski deserves. Without him, these frequently heartwrenching melodies would no longer exist. And of course, the elephant in the room is how many more songs like this would we be able to enjoy if the people who played them into Beregovski’s wax cylinder recorder hadn’t been murdered?