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Hans KRÁSA (1899-1944)
Brundibár. A Children’s Opera in Two Acts (1938) Hebrew and Yiddish Folk Songs (arr. Victor ULLMANN unless otherwise stated) Chassidish, Bachuri L’an Tisa (arr. Gideon KLEIN) Ki Tavo El Ha-Arets (arr. Siegmund SCHUL), Anu Olim
Hala Yarden, Sha Shtil, Fregt Di Velt,
Az Der Rebbe Elimelech, Am’cha Yisrael,
Halleluyah, Hedad Ginah K’tanah, Eliyahu Hanavi,
Essex Children’s Choir
Members of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Robert DeCormier
Recorded at Ira Allen Chapel, University of Vermont in Burlington, January 1996 (Brundibár) and at the Fine Arts Centre, Middlebury College, Vermont, February 1996 (Songs)

Brundibár was written in 1938 and had its first performance some years later in a Prague orphanage. Its composition may have preceded the War but by the time of that première, in the winter of 1942-43, both the composer and the first choice conductor had been sent to Terezin. The first performance there was for bigger forces – the orphanage had been for boys only – so a mixed cast and a little orchestra (rather than violin, piano and drums) was available for the first time and the original conductor, Rafael Schaechter, resumed command. The opera invariably grew to assume a great weight of significance, so much so that the librettist, Emil Saudek, changed a couple of lines of his text at the end to reinforce the struggle to defend justice and to triumph. It ran to fifty-five performances and was the most often performed work in Terezin.

This Vermont recording has a small band of three violins, viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, trumpet, guitar (and banjo), keyboard and percussion. None of the singers are professional and the cast of children copes well with the idiomatic (translated into American English) text bringing a singular honesty to it. Krása, a composition student of Zemlinsky in Prague, wrote a score that fused Martinu’s motoric self-confidence with Weill’s smoky cabaret wit and laced it all with Francophile wind writing - cool and clear. The lyricism is simplified but not simple minded, even if this is specifically an opera for children, and rises to moments of unselfconscious elevation – such as for example the relatively long finale (Scene VIII) that ends Act I where a brass chorale courses through the final moments. Fusing with these moments are the poignancy of utilising Czech lullabies or folk songs – Every bird must one day spread his wings – and some real (or imagined) cross references in the writing to things like Verklärte Nacht.

The remainder of the programme is devoted to the Hebrew and Yiddish folk songs arranged in the main by Victor Ullmann – one was arranged by Gideon Klein and another by Siegmund Schul. There’s a slightly cosmopolitan air to them, at least as they’re presented in these performances, with the most explicitly Jewish being Sha Shtil. Anu Olim is the most difficult and sounds rather unidiomatic here.

Brundibár sung in English certainly has the force of immediacy and immediately explicable meaning. But one should first secure a Czech recording – possibly the Channel Classics disc under Joza Karas with an all-Czech cast. The coupling there is the Czech Songs of Domazlický. Whichever you decide on you won’t get more than 46 minutes of music – but then I suppose Brundibár is something of a special case.

Jonathan Woolf


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