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Spiritual Resistance: Music From Theresienstadt
Pavel HAAS (1899-1944)
Four Songs after words of Chinese Poetry
(c.1943) [14.06]
Karel BERMAN (1919-1995)
Six movements from Reminiscences Suite for solo piano (1938-45)
Hans KRASA (1899-1944)
Five Songs
Op. 4 (1925) [4.57]
Gideon KLEIN (1919-1945)
Three Songs
(1940) [10.02]; Lullaby [1.56]
Victor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
Man and his Day’ Twelve Images by Hans Adler’ Op. 47 (c.1944) [14.23]
Der Müde Soldat [3.23]
Three Songs Op. 37 (1942) [6.29]
Zikmund SCHUL (1916-1944)
Die Nischt-Gewesenen
(1937) [1.29]
Ilse WEBER (1903-1944)
Poem ‘Ich Wandre durch Theresienstadt’ [0.59]
Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone); Russell Ryan (piano)
rec. Music Room, Caramoor, Katonah, New York, 30-31 March 2008
BRIDGE 9280 [75.08]
Experience Classicsonline

I can remember back in the early 1990s when the music of the Theresienstadt composers, and of others who died elsewhere in equally appalling squalor and depravation began to make its way onto CD. Companies like Channel Classics, Koch with their ‘Terezin Music Anthology’ and Decca in their short-lived but excellent ‘Entartete Musik’ series achieved much. I can remember how astonished many of us were by the quality of the music and by its variety. The composers such as Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein were unknown to us. Now the music is easy to hear and to a certain extent has been superseded by much else, yet the surprise can return when a disc like this appears demanding attention.

In fairness some of these songs have been recorded before. Haas’s Chinese songs and Ullmann’s ‘Three Yiddish songs' were on a curious box set entitled ‘Theresienstadt Die Musik 1941-44’ on the Romantic Robot label (RR 1941 - nla) but I won’t bore you with these unnecessary details. Instead I will take the songs and the performances presented here as they stand.

Dividing the songs and scattered around the CD are six movements from a suite for solo piano called 'Reminiscences’ by a composer who, amazingly did survive Theresienstadt, Karel Berman. These pieces have a touching but disturbing naivety with titles like ‘III March 1939-occupation’ with drum rhythms and screeches of fear and the ghastly ‘Auschwitz-Corpse Factory’. Lastly there is a folk-like melody which is nicely developed in the movement ‘New Life’.

The other composers were not so lucky. Haas like the other composers, as a Czech-Jew, makes a good example. He divorced his wife so as not to implicate her and his daughter in his own demise. In 1941 he was shipped off to Theresienstadt and suffered depression but composed works including the Chinese Songs recorded here. In October 1944 he disappeared to Auschwitz and was murdered. These generally sombre songs sum up the atmosphere of the disc. This is a connected cycle which includes the St.Wenceslas melody - so important to all Czechs - in three of its settings. The final forced ‘la la la’s could only have been composed by a desperate man. It was composer Karel Berman no less who, as a fine bass, gave the songs their first airing.

Gideon Klein had been a very promising young musician and might have studied in London. Instead, in 1940 he is carted off to Theresienstadt as a bright young thing to show how well artists were treated. He lived only until the early months of 1945. These songs, which he inscribed Op. 1, date from 1940 but were only discovered in 1990. They are desolate and gloomy settings of Johann Klaj, Hölderlin and Goethe translated into Czech. They are atonal and suggest that Klein knew Schoenberg’s music. They do not have the energy or character of his later pieces like the String Trio and Piano Sonata. The CD ends, touchingly, with a short, simple but beautiful Lullaby by Klein. This is sung in Hebrew.

Victor Ullmann was a top professional conductor and composer before he joined the other camp incumbents in 1943. He composed prolifically even while incarcerated, especially songs. He also led the music at the camp and did so with energy. He is quoted at the start of the excellent booklet notes by Christopher Hailey as saying “…. our will to create culture was as strong as our will to live”. He had been an assistant to Zemlinsky in Prague and had studied with Schoenberg. His ‘Der Müde Soldat’ with its anti-war implications is a setting of Klabund (Alfred Henschke) the librettist of Zemlinsky’s opera ‘The Chalk Circle” (1933) and in this moving song it is Zemlinsky’s chromatic yet clear harmonic freedom which hovers over it. It is perhaps Kurt Weill who is brought to mind in Ullmann’s Three Songs Op. 37. They are amazingly humorous and set witty texts by the Swiss poet Carl Ferdinand Meyer. They are all the more astonishing considering they were composed in Theresienstadt. They are brilliantly characterized here by Wolfgang Holzmair.

The Twelve Songs’ Op. 47 are settings of his poet friend Hans Adler, who survived Theresienstadt. To give you an idea of their aphoristic nature I quote, poignantly, the last one ‘Stillness’. “Stillness, Silence / Seeing and observing / Quietly in solemn sight / Spending the night before God”. The cycle is beautiful but mournful in overall effect. It is in effect a continuous piano piece over which the voice sings these texts. This is done with a limited vocal range. There is no line or word repetition - exactly as the poet set down the words.

Another composer who came under the influence of Zemlinsky - and earlier of Roussel as a student in Paris - in this oh-so-talented generation of Czech-Jewish musicians was Hans Krasa. I have always thought of him as one of the most interesting figures of the entire period. His ‘Five Songs’ Op. 4 which include two poems by Rilke are rather vaguely on the subject of Love and nature. In their brevity they are aphoristic and fleeting but quite chromatic and dark.

Zikmund Schul is a new name to me. Not surprisingly really as he has only left us ten pieces. In ‘Die Nischt-Gewesenen’ he sets his own poem which includes the ironic lines “But dreams never come true”. His certainly did not as he died soon after marrying, in Terezin of influenza. His song ‘What never was’ is moving and lilting.

The performances capture the contrasting moods of each song beautifully. Wolfgang Holzmair is closely miked but not too much to the detriment of his highly sensitive partner and technically superb Russell Ryan whose role one could easily overlook as the accompaniments are not necessarily virtuosic. However the recording is a little disappointing and the piano does sound somewhat boxy. There is an extensive essay by Christopher Hailey in the booklet and all texts with translations are included as well as photos and sketches of the artists and composers.

Finally, the songs are broken up by a poem, solemnly intoned by Holzmair which is by Ilse Weber who died in Theresienstadt. Some words from the poem will end the review: “ I wander through Theresienstadt / my heart is heavy as lead / …… My home has been taken away from me / I have none any more / ….. When again shall we be free”.

Gary Higginson










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