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Music from the Holocaust
Karel BERMAN (1919-1995)

1938-1945 Reminiscences, Suite for Piano (1944, additional movements 1957) [22.24]
Pavel HAAS (1899-1944)

Suite for Piano Op.13 (1935) [13.58]
Gideon KLEIN (1919-1945)

Sonata for Piano (1943) [10.30]
Viktor ULLMANN (1898-1944)

Piano Sonata No.7 (1944) [22.10]
Paul Orgel (piano)
Recorded at the University of Vermont Recital Hall, January 2005
PHOENIX PHCD161 [69.04]


The odd man out here is Karel Berman for two reasons. Firstly he was the only one of the quartet of Czech Jews to survive the War and secondly he was to become known almost exclusively as a singer, though in his youth he was active as a composer and conductor, as well as committing himself to the concert and operatic stages.

It’s fitting that he’s here, since he was the dedicatee of important work from both Haas and Ullmann, not least Haas’ Four Songs to Texts of Chinese Poetry and the figure of Death in the latter’s The Emperor of Atlantis. His 1938-1945 Reminiscences were originally called simply Terezin and comprised three movements. In 1957 he expanded the suite to the eight movements with which we are now familiar. They comprise a block of pianistic autobiography and trace Berman’s life from the joyous and carefree Mládi (Youth) through the warmth and domestic reflection as well as romantic burgeoning of the Family Home. Explicitly descriptive the ominous, grotesque goose steps of the 1939 Occupation herald a dramatic change of tone; the mordant touches of Prokofiev add a sour taste, as do the mechanistic slowings down of the Factory scene. Auschwitz is evoked with spare and granitic remorselessness in a bare two minutes. Berman calls upon impressionism for the penultimate Alone-Alone tableau, its tied bass note and chords nagging away like a colossal migraine before the final New Life brings reminiscences of earlier days and renewed vigour and hope. This is only one of two extant compositions by Berman and it evokes pain and melancholy – and brutish barbarism – with measured control.

The other works are naturally better known but no less valuable for being coupled on this enterprising disc. Haas’s Suite is a mid-1930s delight and cast in five archaic sounding movements. There’s pithy woodland frolic in the opening Praeludium and a dramatically bold second movement marked Con molta espressione. The central Danza is a rather cocky Parisian one, with a touch of Martinů inspired Jazz ŕ la mode, but there’s plenty of reflective intimacy in the final Postludium. This is the only piece here written pre-War and its lightness of touch acts as a kind of programmatic Scherzo amidst the denser tragedies of the companion trio of works.

Of these Ullmann’s Seventh Sonata is amongst the most powerful, so much so in fact that it was subsequently orchestrated, using Ullmann’s notes, and performed in 1989 as his Symphony No.2. The opening is deceptively welcoming and light-hearted, puzzling and disconcertingly when one remembers it was sketched in 1944 two months before his transportation from Terezin to the gas chambers and death. But there’s a sardonic march to follow and a wide-ranging unsettled, tonality-bursting central adagio which makes coded reference to Tristan und Isolde. A quirky Viennese waltz, subtly deconstructed, leads on to the longest movement, a variational finale of considerable power that utilises a fugue to impressive effect; binding themes such as a Hussite hymn and a Lutheran chorale with increasing command.

The relative concision of Gideon Klein’s 1943 Sonata barely masks its power. The longest of the three movements is the first but its most intense moments are reserved for the crepuscular impressionism of the Adagio, which is laced with Francophile affiliations and sonorities. The finale by contrast, and like many a Czech work of this period, owes a big debt to Prokofiev. Comparing Paul Orgel with Jaromír Klepáč on Bonton (though ex-Panton) and we find that the native player gives fuller vent to Klein’s con fuoco indication in the first movement, and binds its Schoenbergian influence rather more succinctly. His greater speed accords well with the dynamism and intensity of the musical argument and he is much eerier than Orgel in the second movement, who’s more straight and inflects less; Orgel is not helped by a consistently over loud recording that fails to deal with dynamics as well as it might and that exacerbates a hardness in piano attack – one that Klepáč successfully avoids in the finale.

Nevertheless this disc draws together four mutually elucidatory works. You’d need to cast your net wide to track down individual performances such as Charvát’s Berman on Channel, or Nishri’s version of the Klein on Roma. Or then again whilst Kvapil is a sure bet for the Ullmann on Praga and you could search for Weichert on CPO easily enough, you’d still need to get Schleiermacher on Dabringhaus und Grimm in the case of the Haas. All complicated stuff. This Phoenix disc however comprises sympathetic performances, not the most incisive it’s true, but sensitive, and Orgel writes well about the works in his notes. A good starting point - but one that needs to be augmented.

Jonathan Woolf




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