The Blue Book ★★★★

Impressive Jewish choral music featuring Mosaic Voices with conductor and arranger Michael Etherton

The Voice of Song and Prayer, known colloquially as the ‘The Blue Book’, has been the foundation of Jewish choral music in the UK and the Commonwealth ever since it was published in London in 1899. It was originally written for mixed female and male voices – common practice in mainstream Orthodox synagogues until the early 1960s. In today’s Orthodox synagogues, tenors take the soprano and tenor parts, while baritones cover alto.

Mosaic Voices is the resident choir at London’s New West End under conductor and arranger Michael Etherton. For this album, Etherton has recast the original parts of 15 carefully selected works for eight singers. Thus the choir makes the most of the full range of male voices from low bass to counter tenor with the aim of reconstructing much of the original flavour of the music for today’s listeners.

The result is an elegant succession of songs familiar to any Ashkenazi shulgoer, presented as high-art choral singing that stands up to comparison with the finest religious choral works in any tradition. Etherton coaxes exceptionally well-balanced performances from his talented group of singers and their diction is faultless.

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Compare, for example, the familiar ‘Adon Olam’ by Waley with the lesser known 17th-century version by Salamone Rossi. In both,the textures and dynamics from different music traditions get due space and weight, the Rossi attractively embellished by nine choristers. From the High Holy Days music, the choir sings the evocative strains of Haim Wasserzug’s ‘Zochreinu’ and the traditional ‘Shema Koleinu’ in a tempo that allows the music to breathe and Etherton gives the individual parts equal weight.

To members of a voluntary synagogue choir, this album is intriguing and impressive, and gives us plenty to think about.

It’s refreshing to hear the ‘Hatikvah’ (Israel’s national anthem), a sort of bonus final track, sung in a high choral setting for a small choir. Most of us are used to joining in lustily at bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings. Mosaic Voices would have made the Victorian co-editors of The Blue Book, David M Davis and Rabbi Francis L Cohen, hugely proud.

By Judi (alto) and Steve (bass) Herman, who sing in Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue Choir.

Listen to excerpts and buy The Blue Book at