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Isaac SCHWARTZ (b.1923)
Yellow Stars, concerto for orchestra in seven parts (1998)
National Philharmonic of Russia/Vladimir Spivakov
Recorded at Svetlanov’s Hall, Moscow, May 2004
A Film by Joan Grossman with writings and excerpts from Jewish Ghetto diaries and notebooks
Dolby Digital 5.1, NTSC/B+W, Colour/4.3, Region Code 0, DVD 5, Languages D, E, F
CAPRICCIO DVD 93 508 [57.44]


This release is available as a DVD and a hybrid SACD counterpart.

Joan Grossman’s film illustrates Yellow Stars with film footage from a variety of sources and locations, travelling in a rough chronological arc from book burning and shop-boycotting (well known images) to the liquidation of the Warsaw and Kovno ghettos. There are also scenes from Dombrova in Poland, the occupation of Lithuania, still shots and, most innovatively, contemporary colour footage, taken from a car, of the countryside between Treblinka and Warsaw. It’s used to illustrate the Nocturne movement.

Among the much unusual footage one can see film of a choral concert and straight-to-camera shots of crowds in the ghettos. In the third movement, Merry Dance, we see stills of musicians and others, many of them children. Street crowds throng throughout Evening Prayer, the sixth movement including significantly the ill and beggars. In the finale we see the transports and the liquidation of the ghettos, especially that of Kovno in 1944 and Warsaw. The film then attempts to present images of the Holocaust experience as a visual analogue to Schwartz’s music.

Schwartz was born in 1923 and suffered the brutal realities of life in the Soviet Union. His father was arrested and died in one of Stalin’s camps and the family was sent to Kyrgystan. There he met Shostakovich’s sister Maria Dmitrievna, similarly banished, and it was she who arranged accommodation in Leningrad when the family was allowed to return to Russia after the War. It was her brother who recommended he study with Boris Arapov – and secretly financed those studies. Schwartz refused to denounce Shostakovich in 1948, despite provocation, and managed to produce a stream of works following his graduation in 1951. He later moved towards film music, writing a raft of scores for a succession of films, many of them very well known, and only returned to symphonic music in his seventies.

Yellow Stars or Purim spiel in the ghetto was one of the fruits of that return, subtitled a concerto for orchestra in seven parts. It received its first performance in 1998. The work owes its genesis to Schwartz reading an account of life during the War in the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania. The Purim festival, a time of joyfulness, was a particular focus - it became "a festival of nooses" in the camp. Schwartz’s work is dedicated jointly to Raoul Wallenberg and to Vladimir Spivakov, who didn’t conduct the premiere but who conducts this recording.

It’s hard to be other than descriptive when considering a work such as this. Opening with a morning prayer we find gravity and serenity fused – a stetl dance, clarinet klezmer, strong shofar horns as the music sweeps up and then - once more - relaxation into reflective intimacy led by a theme for solo cello. Again the juxtapositions ramify with the return of the dance, augmented by solos for violin and trumpet; the whole forming a kaleidoscopic world, Mahlerian and with elements of Shostakovich as well. The second movement is a Chorale with variations, once more lit by clarinet dance and by an outsize violin solo. There are the merest hints of Sibelius in the writing that cleaves strongly to an early twentieth century tonal muse throughout. In the central Dance – a kind of Scherzo - there’s a riot of colour with bassoon, bass clarinet and other winds festively celebrating with unbridled freedom. This is followed by the reflective, refractive Nocturne – lyrical, maybe filmic, Mahlerian, sometimes ambiguous. The fifth movement is almost parodically Jewish – thick portamenti, whilst the sixth embraces desolate trumpet calls, a hint of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony – abruptly cut short. The Finale opens with a forlorn clarinet, increasing melancholy, until tense brass drives the writing onwards. Slow, sombre, though seemingly ultimately uplifting, the return of klezmer tune presages a fast dance and the music gets quicker and quicker. Defiance? A Shostakovich Eighth Quartet Dance of Death? Maybe both.

The performances are highly accomplished and present Schwartz’s music with warmth, rhythmic tautness and bite. They don’t underplay the occasional moments of Rimsky-like lyricism nor the Mahlerian marches. Much is moving, compelling and often filmic in its intense immediacy.

Isaac SCHWARTZ (b.1923)
Yellow Stars, concerto for orchestra in seven parts (1998)
National Philharmonic of Russia/Vladimir Spivakov
Recorded at Svetlanov’s Hall, Moscow, May 2004
CAPRICCIO SACD 71 027 [57.44]

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Jonathan Woolf




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