There’s a special tone that belongs to some opera recordings made before 1950. It’s not only the felty fuzz of the old medium itself or the whispery beat of the record turning against the needle, but a particular slowness in the singing, a formal, rounded diction, an orotund pigeon-chest noise, as if the birds are purring parrou and at the same time feeling proud of the sound. “Listen,” they seem to be telling themselves, “hear how nice that one was? Beautiful. Parrou.”
Ben Baruch belongs to this tradition of voices that seem to be taking themselves very, very seriously. That sound, back then, must have felt like the natural way for a voice to behave. “Of course he sings like that,” listeners must have thought. “Why wouldn’t he? That’s how some men naturally are when they sing.” Now it seems off, somehow. That sad, slow, swelling noise, as if he’s drawing it out because he thinks you might want to pat him on the back. How resentful it makes us! How annoyed! Get on with it! Enough of those tedious moans and this pleased voice bumping itself gradually upstairs on “Wie Ahin Soll Ich Gehn”.
Or, no, wait, maybe we’re not resentful, maybe we’re impressed. A slower culture back then, we nod to ourselves. People taking times to shape things. Thoughtful, distant, and true. Each note hand-made. Blown into a balloon of roundness, like liquid glass. None of this rush, rush, rush. “Oh,” you might say, sighing to yourself, “that was before the days when singing seemed quick and disposable, before it was made to snap at your ears, back when a pop song meant Mario Lanza getting wildly emotional all over Tosca.”
Ben Baruch was not Lanza. He was not wildly emotional. He wasn’t exactly Jussi Björling either. He was just a nice, middling tenor. Born in Poland under the name Yitshak Jacques Zaludkowski, Baruch trained as a synagogue cantor, and, later, at the Conservatoire of Lyons, as a classical singer. A career in opera followed and then he went back to the synagogues.
The songs on this two-disc set have been taken from the recordings of Jewish music in Yiddish and Hebrew that he made for a record company named Saturn. The songs were released in 1950 as a series of picture discs. Sub Rosa has decorated Baruch’s booklet with photographs of some of those discs and their melancholy illustrations of slightly grassy landscapes, weeping women, glum, skinny prophets, and barbed wire. The most upbeat one shows a line of people waving Israeli flags and carrying guns while a trio of naked children sit and stand nearby, two of them gesturing at the adults with their nude little arms and showing off their bare, pert little arses. My iTunes insists on filing him under “gospel.”
I grew up around a father who played opera singers from this era regularly so as soon as I hear this crackle and this tone I don’t see cantors and synagogues, newly-established Israel, Jewish tradition, or anything else like that. All I see is the house languishing under the grey sung sag of dead bassos and tenors. For that reason I have trouble being sympathetic towards this double-album. It makes me think of dads. But anyone who has been looking for a loving reissue of some serious Jewish singing need seek, I imagine, no further. The booklet notes aren’t extensive, but they’re enough. Some commentary about the songs themselves would have been handy. The sound quality is sometimes compromised by the age of the originals, there are ticks and needle-murmurs, but these shouldn’t seem overwhelming unless you’re fixed on the idea of crystalline clarity. Baruch sounds thoughtful, stirring, and filled with faith. You’ll possibly like him. Parrou.