Radzynski’s setting of Psalm 137, Al naharot bavel (By the Rivers of Babylon), for solo tenor and orchestra, is a self-contained movement of his Psalm sequence Shirat ma’ayan, which he wrote in 1997 on a joint commission from the Rothschild Foundation and the Haifa Symphony Orchestra. (Apart from this movement, the work also features a mezzo-soprano soloist.) His interpretation of this Psalm differs radically from Zavel Zilberts's large choral setting, although, despite the sharp divergences in harmonic language, period-driven style, rhythmic complexities, and linear contours, both express the agony of exile and the historical longing for return to Zion. Like Zilberts, Radzynski pays close attention to the text, but on his own terms and in his own musical language.
The orchestral opening sets the tone of anguish, with hints at forthcoming melodic elements interrupted by ponderous percussive gestures. High registers are exploited in the strings, suggesting at the same time outrage and pain. Following the tenor solo entry and the reference to the Babylonian captors, the orchestra builds to an impassioned climax on its own. In the last two verses, the solo lines become declamatory as they portray Jerusalem’s destruction. The piece concludes with a spun-out, meditative postlude.
Sung in Hebrew
SHIRAT MA'AYAN (EXCERPT)
Translation: JPS Tanakh 1999
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat,
sat and wept,
as we thought of Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung up our kinors,
for our captors asked us there for songs,
our tormentors, for amusement,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
How can we sing a song of the Lord
on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem's fall;
how they cried, "Strip her, strip her
to her very foundations!"
Fair Babylon, you predator,
a blessing on him who repays you in kind
what you have inflicted on us;
a blessing on him who seizes your babies
and dashes them against the rocks!
Performers: Barcelona Symphony-National Orchestra of Catalonia; Matthew Kirchner, Tenor; Jorge Mester, ConductorAdditional Credits:
Publisher: Israel Music Institute (Theodore Presser)
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