Vienna Choir Boys learn Yiddishkeit on new CD

It may not have the shock value of Madonna donning tefillin, but when the Vienna Choir Boys start recording Jewish works in Hebrew, clearly some sort of paradigm shift must be underway.

Established in 1498 during the time of the Holy Roman Empire, the Vienna Choir Boys have long symbolized Germanic/Catholic refinement. But with the release of the Milken Archive CD “Vienna Choir Boys: A Jewish Celebration in Song,” the famed ensemble may want to consider calling itself the Vienna Choir Boychicks.

The CD features two extended choral pieces, “The Day of Rest” (1978) by American composer Sholom Kalib, and “Psalms of Abraham” (1980) by Israeli composer Abraham Kaplan, with the latter work proving the more impressive of the two.

A frequent collaborator with Leonard Bernstein, Kalib enjoys a peerless pedigree in American Jewish music, in both the concert hall and the synagogue. Kaplan has an extensive musical resume in both the United States and Israel, including posts at Julliard, the Jewish Theological Seminary and New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue.

Both pieces on the CD were commissioned by the Beth Abraham Youth Chorale of Dayton, Ohio, a nationally renowned Jewish youth choir. Scored for orchestra, cantorial soloist and youth chorus, the two are optimum vehicles for the Vienna Choir Boys’ purity of tone.

However, the choir provides more marquee value than anything else. In both pieces, the choral sections take a back seat to the solos and orchestral color.

Kalib’s “Day of Rest” is comprised of six selections drawn from Numbers, Psalms, Lamentations, Proverbs and the siddur. In the “Havdala” and “Mimm’komo,” Kalib keeps within the confines of classic liturgical trope. Cantor Naftali Herstik provides the right touch of solemnity. In contrast, the “Shalom Aleikhem” and “Eliyahu Hannavi,” which bookend the piece, resound with buoyant flourishes, reminiscent of Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols.”

In his “Psalms of Abraham” (drawn from the biblical Psalms), composer Kaplan wants little to do with 20th century neo-classicism. Instead, he turns in a piece that is highly tuneful and very much rooted in 19th century sonorities (though watch out for the occasional left turn into Carl Orff territory).

The best passages include the Schubertian “Enosh Kehatzir Yamav,” the “Tov L’hodot” and the “Hinne Ma Tov,” though the melody of the latter is overly reminiscent of Beethoven’s Eroica finale.

The performances are uniformly flawless, especially the soloists, Herstik on the Kalib and Cantor Shimon Craimer on the Kaplan piece. The Vienna Choir Boys turn in a perfectly fine though hardly electrifying performance (one exception being the boy’s solo in “Essa Einai” from the “Psalms”). Conductor Gerald Wirth is the unsung hero here, holding together and balancing the constituent parts.

While this CD would most likely appeal to classical connoisseurs first and foremost, there’s plenty to stir the Jewish heart as well. Add into the mix the historic importance of the Vienna Choir Boys singing about HaShem, and Jewish music collectors may want to sing a hallelujah chorus of their own.

“Vienna Choir Boys: A Jewish Celebration in Song” from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, Naxos Records. Information:

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.