Seen and Heard
Szymon LAKS, Pavel
HAAS, Viktor ULLMAN, Olivier MESSIAEN, Siegmund SCHUL,
Jacqueline Cole (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 15th January, 2005
“Since I was a member of the orchestra at Auschwitz…I
regard it as my obligation to relate and in some way to commemorate
this strange chapter in the history of music.” So wrote Szymon
Laks (1901-1983) shortly after his liberation. This concert, titled
“Homage to Szymon Laks”, showcases his music in the
context of contemporaries, other musicians who despite the horrors
of their situation, found in music some form of spiritual resistance.
As an advisor at Yad Vashem says “We must not only remember
them, which is a cheap and superficial cliché - we must learn
This intriguing programme was compiled by Jacqueline Cole, a specialist
in the music of Viktor Ullman, perhaps the best known of composers
who were caught up in the Holocaust. Laks was Polish and, like his
hero, Chopin, made his career in France. The influence shows in
his Homage à Chopin, written in 1949. Hints of Chopin
surface continuously, encased in passages of theme development.
Should you be seduced by the lyricism, the ending is abrupt, a scream
in F sharp minor which shakes you out of complacency. It is as if
Laks recalls the irony of his return to Poland, and can say no more.
Sonata Brève, written in 1946, is a far starker
piece, its three movements structurally coherent. It starts with
baroque references but soon changes key and leaps into harsh modernity.
The second movement is a brooding meditation of unadorned low notes,
contrasting with the affirmative, dominant final conclusion.
Pavel Haas’s Suite Op. 13 evokes the world that existed
before the war. It’s stylishly vigorous, in the Moravian tradition
of Janacek, Haas’s teacher, full of quirky dance and jazz
influences. Its full- throated melodies seem to celebrate life and
movement, though the terse tango give and take cross rhythms and
add expressionistic undertones of tension. Ironically, it was written
for a pianist who was to die beside Haas in Auschwitz.
Far and away the most stunning piece of music this evening was Viktor
Ullman’s Piano Sonata No. 7. This striking piece
was written on scraps of paper in Theresienstadt, six weeks before
his death. Dedicated to his children, it includes many personal
musical references harking back to his career, a sort of memorial
to his life. From the very first notes you know something special
is happening, for the sprinkling, star like notes on one hand contrast
with a deliberate funeral tread on the other. There is a short,
minimalist middle where single notes reverberate into silence, very
dignified and moving. It is contemplative yet deliberate. Every
note counts, nothing is superfluous. The precision of the scoring
in the final movement with its firm, dominant chords reflect what
we know of Ullman’s powerful intellect and deep humanity.
He was not a man to be cowed by evil. The melodic line is pure and
unsullied, needing no adornment. Like an affirmation of spiritual
hope, it rises higher and higher until it emanates into silence.
The audience were shocked into silence, and then burst into heartfelt
Jacqueline Cole trained with Yvonne and Jeanne Loriod, so a piece
from Messiaen was appropriate. His Vingt Regards sur L’enfant
Jesus, written in September 1944, are a contemplation of the
mysteries of life and death, based on his own background. With the
Ullman sonata still in my heart, I was contemplating the “correspondances”,
in the French sense of the word, between the imagery of the “première
communion de la Vierge” and Ullmann’s final fugue.
Cole herself finds “correspondences” between Messiaen’s
“Par lui tout a été fait” and the fragment
remaining of Siegmund Schul’s sonata. Schul’s fragment
makes one wonder what the whole might have been, for its purity
of spirit is quite uplifting although it was written shortly before
the composer was transported. Again, Viktor Ullman’s perceptions
inspire. On Schul’s death in June 1944, Ullman wrote “and
should you create witnesses in wounded songs, they shall, should
we lose you, make peace.”