Alicia Svigals / Fidl (Klezmer Violin)

Album cover: Another thing this album shares with the Warschauer album--tacky, tacky, tacky type, in this case, overwhelming a remarkable fiddle papercut

Alicia Svigals

Traditional Crossroads, CD 4286, 1996

I feel incredibly fortunate to have an album, just like this one, to review, right after listening to and writing about a similar, yet very different album, Jeff Warschauer's "The Singing Waltz." In his album, Warschauer presented a repertoire of klezmer music for guitar and mandolin. Here, the person who is possibly the most electric and amazing violinist in the klezmer world, the Klezmatics own Alicia Svigals, does the same for violin. In this case, however, Svigals is recreating and reclaiming (and adding to the repertoire on her way). It was not by accident that Isaac Babel wrote about trying to learn the violin--it was the traditional Jewish lead instrument, and as opportunities arose for Jews outside traditional life in Eastern Europe, Heifetz led the charge to the wider world. As Svigals' repertoire and playing demonstrate, Heifetz was neither alone nor unique.

(That was my own contribution to the ethnomusicology of klezmer violin. For a summary closer to factual, you'll want to read Zev Feldman's detailed and eminently readable liner notes to this album--yes, the Zev Feldman who played and recorded with Andy Statman in the mid-Seventies, and who is now University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.)

So, to accomplish this miracle of modern klezmer violin repertoire, Svigals gathered some of her friends (a damn fine cross-section of the finest klezmorim around, if I may say so) and they play. They play stuff from all over the klezmer map. I find myself even skipping back and forth between this Ternovker Sher, back and forth among the two Romanian Fantasies (but where is Romanian Fantasy 2?), and the opening Kale Baveynen, or caught up in the interplay and improvisation of "Binyomele's Kholem." Svigals fiddle, if less often less intense than in concert with the Klezmorim (are my heavy metal roots causing a preference to appear?), is nonetheless playing with a delightful depth and feeling. In addition, Josh Horowitz' tsimbl playing (and Lorin Sklamberg's faux-tsimbl piano), and Matt Dariau's occasional kaval stand out as both exotic and equally precise. They transform, for instance, the familiar "Dance for the parents of the bride" (here, "Shver un Shviger") into an otherworldly and stately fusion of fiddle, tsimble, and kavel, and what they do with the pieces known elsewhere as the Philadelphia Shers is astounding. It is water music. Flowing, wonderful. Filling.

I want to take care, in writing about this album that I neither make this seem like a dry (hah!) pedagogic experiment, and yet, neither do I make it sound like yet another party CD (for that you'll want to grab Yuri Yunakov, from the same label). It also occurs to me that some of what I hear different is simply instrumentation. There is no clarinet. There are no horns. This is not just different instrumentation, but also a different style of klezmer from what is generally heard nowadays. (You get a hint of age because the songs refer more to places or to activities, rather than to the exorbitant names made up on the spot to label the early American klezmer recordings.)

What I also want to acknowledge is that this album also represents a milestone in klezmer revival history. It's not just the return of klez, it's the return of the klez fidl. To paraphrase Svigals discussing new Yiddish culture at the the recent Ashkenaz Festival, "we keep talking about how we are going to create new Yiddish culture and what it will be like, but I think that it's past that point. We've created new music and new culture and it's very much based on the past and it's very new; it's alive and still growing." There will be more simkha (celebration) albums, as well, but we're now sliding back and forth not just between klezmer genres, but klezmer periods and styles of a hundred years ago as ethnomusicologists such as Feldman and Horowitz expand on the meager remnants of Beregovski, and musicians such as Svigals can make those lost melodies accessible again. Think of this as the "Lost Jewish Fidl Music of Transylvania," played as it might really have sounded, and yet also played so that it sounds of today.

This album is obviously essential if you are learning to play klezmer style. But it is also the sort of music that you want to have to listen to in quieter, more contemplative moments ... reading Grace Paley, perhaps, or a new translation of Glückel of Hameln, or as background to a romantic dinner.

As I said at the beginning, this is the sort of album that makes me feel very fortunate to be a fan of klezmer. When one can mark one's life with this sort of pleasure, life is good.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 9/21/97

Personnel this recording:
Alicia Svigals: fiddle, tambourine (#7b.)
Elaine Hoffman Watts: drums
Lorin Sklamberg: piano (faux-tsimbl)
Joshua Horowitz: tsimbl
Steven Greenman: fiddle
Matthieu Darriau: kaval
Lauren Brody: accordion
Pablo Aslan: bass

Hugo Dwyer: woodblock (#7b.)


  1. Kale Baveynen--Making the Bride Weep (Svigals)
  2. Baym Rebns Sude--At the Rebbe's Feast (trad., arr. Svigals)
  3. Dem Tsadiks Zemerl--The Sage's Melody (trad., arr. Svigals)
  4. Romanian Fantasy no. 1 (trad., arr. Svigals)
  5. Kallarash (trad., arr. Svigals)
  6. Dem Trisker Rebns Khosid--The follower of the Rebbe of Trisk (trad., arr. Svigals)
  7. Kale-kale Mazl Tov--Congratulations to the brides (trad., arr. Svigals)
  8. a. A Heimisher Bulgar--Homey Bulgar (Ellstein)
    b. L'hu Neroneno--Let us rejoice (trad., arr. Svigals)
    c. Beckerman Honga (Horowitz)
    d. Romanian Bulgarish (trad., arr. Svigals)
  9. Sha, Sha, Di Shviger Kumt--Quiet down, mother-in-law is coming (trad., arr. Svigals)
  10. Binyomele's Kholem--Little Benjamin's Dream (Svigals)
  11. Glazier's Hora (Svigals)
  12. Ternovker Sher (Tarras)
  13. Shver un Shviger--Dance for parents of the bride (trad., arr. Svigals)
  14. Romanian Fantasy no. 3 (trad.)
  15. Naftule Shpilt far dem Rebn--Naftule plays for the Rebbe (trad.)
  16. A Heimisher Sher--Homey Sher (Tarras)
  17. Binyomele's Vig-lid--Little Benjamin's Lullaby (trad., arr. Svigals)

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