Sephardi music of a vanished world plays again

A new collection of the music of Alberto Hemsi casts light on the songs of a lost community


Alberto Hemsi, a Sephardi Jew, was born in 1898 in the small city of Cassaba (now Turgutlu) near Smyrna. Between 1920 and 1970 he amassed a collection of 250 Sephardi songs from a wide range of communities. Sixty of them became Coplas Sefardies, classical settings for female voice with piano accompaniment, a lifelong project very much in tune with the musical mood of the period in which it was initiated.

Hemsi, like Leoš Janácek, Béla Bartók and Manuel de Falla, was inspired by European neo-folklorism — a fashion for national movements, particularly those of oppressed peoples, to establish their identities through traditional culture, musical and otherwise. Classical composers, such as Hemsi, sought inspiration from non-classical musical forms, creating a new musical language in the process. Now, two years after they were recorded by the bass-baritone Assaf Levitin, we can enjoy a second Coplas Sefardies in their entirety, in stylish, virtuosic performances by the American-Israeli soprano Tehila Nini Goldstein and the Russian pianist Jascha Nemtsov, whose previous recordings include art song settings of Yiddish repertoire with the mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman.

In Sephardi repertoire it is arguably easier to avoid treading on the toes of traditionalists. “Although there have been movements… to sing Yiddish songs, traditionally”, suggests the Canadian ethnomusicologist Judith Cohen (quoted in an article by Daniel Jonas), “there hasn’t been much in the way of a parallel movement with Judeo-Spanish music — it’s used more as a convenient me-filter (‘This is how I, like, FEEL it, I’m expressing myself creatively’)”.

Many of Hemsi’s compositions are invaluable reworkings of songs we would not have otherwise. The world in which they were collected has, for the most part, vanished, and for them we have no points of comparison. Others, such as the exquisite Durme durme hermosa donzella, have survived without his help and can be heard in performances by mediaeval specialists such as the esteemed Jordi Savall, Burning Bush and Gerard Edery, using instruments contemporary with the period before the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. It is in Hemsi’s sophisticated piano writing that his voice is most clearly heard. In Durme, durme hermosa donzella, a virtuosic flamenco accompaniment to Goldstein’s expressive, flexible voice makes for a more immediately engaging performance than that of its dryer Early Music rivals. No pasech por mi sala even contains echoes of Rachmaninov’s high-romantic Don Juan’s Serenade. Here, Goldstein’s characterful, poised performance is preferable to that of the less assured Ramon Tasat, who himself excels in the simpler traditional accompaniments of Kantikas de Amor i Vida, the delightful Sephardi song disc he recorded with the doyenne of the genre, Flory Jagoda.

Musicians are products of their epoque, influenced by its movements and mores. Recreating a 500-year-old sound world is usually as much a matter of guesswork as fretwork. Authenticity is more about the ability of the composer or artist to respond with honesty and integrity to the works they set or perform.

These recordings of Hemsi, complemented by Nemtsov’s extensive, informative notes, are an essential purchase for anyone with an interest in Sephardi music.


Coplas Sephardies is published today by Hänssler Classic


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