According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, "Sephardic" refers to the "Jews of Spain and Portugal or their descendants, distinguished from the Ashkenazim and other Jewish communities chiefly by their liturgy, religious customs, and pronunciation of Hebrew: after expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1492, established communities in North Africa, the Balkans, Western Europe, and elsewhere."
According to the liner notes for Sephardic Journey, "Cast out of Jerusalem, cast out of Spain. The Spanish Jews in their travels absorbed the accents of Italy, Turkey, and the Middle East. The daily rhythms of life--love, rejection, feasting and celebration--culminate in the mystical prayers of Shabbat."
Then, according to Jewish Music: Its Historical Development by Abraham Idelsohn, "Jewish music is the song of Judaism. It is the tonal expression of Jewish life over a period of over two thousand years, during which the Jewish people have been rent from the physical homeland that cradled their youth. They have been scattered over the entire earth; influenced by almost every culture and nation, consisting of a small minority in each country. And yet, wherever a Jew is settled, whether in the desert of Arabia or the plains of Siberia, he carried his spiritual home in his heart. This spiritual nationality brought forth a folk song as distinctive as the people itself."
Thus, the program of the present disc includes twenty selections from the traditional songs of the Sephardic people. (The Sephardic expulsion from Spain began in 1492, and the songs on the album derive mainly from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries.) Vocalists Nell Snaidas, Karim Sulayman, and Jeffrey Strauss, accompanied by the Apollo's Fire Singers and the period-instrument ensemble Apollo's Fire, led by Jeannette Sorrell, immaculately execute the music.
Apollo's Fire is a relatively small group of performers, about nine-to-twelve instrumentalists in all, depending on the tune, and about twice that number of backup singers, so expect a very personal, very intimate sound. It's just the sort of sound that fits the nature of the music. What's more, since Apollo's Fire strives for historical authenticity, I would guess they come as close as possible to the size and sound of the bands the ancient Jews had at their disposal.
The vocalists handle their parts with a smooth, polished authority, and the choir provide them a wonderfully clean, clear continuity and support. Of course, the Apollo's Fire instrumentalists play flawlessly, making the whole production seem effortless. The music they create is joyful, lively, wistful, and melancholic by turns; but, above all, it is expressively soulful. There are melodies and rhythms here that are hard to resist and even harder to forget, and it's difficult to imagine anyone doing them any better than Apollo's Fire and company.
In fact, if it's historical accuracy one is after, one has to wonder if the wandering Jews of four or five hundred years ago could actually have sounded this good. But that's a moot question because what we have is today's recreation of their music, and in the hands of Ms. Sorrell and Apollo's Fire, that's very good, indeed. Beautiful, moving music.
If I have any negative criticism of the program at all, it's something I've mentioned often enough about album's such as this. Namely, with so many short items on the agenda, so many bits and pieces, it's hard to focus on the overall effect. One thing starts, you get caught up in it, and just about the time you want more, it ends. (The longest selection is six minutes, but most are two or three minutes.) Still, the songs and music are so enchanting, it's hard not to appreciate them, and one cannot deny the pleasing cumulative effect they have on the listener.
Producer and editor Erica Brenner and engineer Thomas Knab made the album for Apollo's Fire and Avie Records at St. Paul's Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio in February 2015. Although the sound is a trifle close, it produces a remarkably detailed and lifelike effect. The natural ambient bloom of the acoustic adds to the realism of the sound, and there is a fine sense of depth as well as breadth to the music making. Percussion sounds vibrant, quick, and dynamic. Voices (solo and group), too, appear warm and natural and always in perfect integration with the instrumental setting. In short, this is among the best-sounding discs I've had the pleasure of hearing in some time.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow: