Paul SCHOENFIELD (b. 1947)
Camp Songs (2001) [25:41]
I. Black Boehm [4:24]
II. The Corpse Carrier’s Tango [4:56]
III. Heil, Sachsenhausen! [6:13]
IV. Mr C [3:23]
V. Adolf’s Farewell to the World [6:45]
Ghetto Songs (2008) [24:19]
I. Shifreie’s Portrait [4:37]
II. Moments of Despair [3:52]
III. Tolling Bells [4:08]
IV. Our Springtime [4:00]
V. A Ray of Sunshine [3:24]
VI. Moments of Confidence [4:18]
Gerard SCHWARZ (b. 1947)
Rudolf and Jeanette (2007) [15:00]
Angela Niederloh (mezzo: Camp, Ghetto)
Erich Parce (baritone: Camp)
Morgan Smith (baritone: Ghetto)
Music of Remembrance/Gerard Schwarz
rec. 18 November 2008 (Camp Songs), 28 May 2008 (Ghetto Songs, Rudolf and Jeanette), Bisley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, USA

In the 1980s, Decca’s Entartete Musik series highlighted the works of composers reviled by the Nazis, among them Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) and Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944). Both died in the concentration camps. Then a few years ago a TV documentary alerted me to the prison-camp settings, Das Lied von Terezín, by film composer Franz Waxman (Decca 460 2112). Since then Terezín/Theresienstadt has figured in recordings by Anne Sofie von Otter - see Steve Arloff’s enthusiastic review - and baritone Wolfgang Holzmair (Bridge 9280). And still the fascination with music of the Holocaust continues, as confirmed in these works by American composer Paul Schoenfield and his compatriot Gerard Schwarz, the latter best known as a conductor.

In Camp Songs Schoenfield sets poems by Kraków-born - but not Jewish - journalist Aleksander Kulisiewicz (1918-1982), who was interned at Sachsenhausen. The work, commissioned by Music of Remembrance and premiered in 2004, is sung here in an English translation by Katarzyna Jersak. Ghetto Songs, premiered in May 2008, is based on poems written in the Kraków Ghetto by Mordecai Gebirtig (1877-1942). I’m delighted to see that the CD booklet includes the lyrics of both works, which are also reproduced on their website.

In another time and another place the Russian poet Yevtushenko understood - and Shostakovich underlined - the importance of humour in the face of adversity. And so it is here, with ‘Black Boehm’ a lacerating little ditty dedicated to the hunchback who tended the crematoria at Sachsenhausen. After a brooding prelude for cello and clarinet, the music becomes somewhat frenetic, a hellish cabaret if you will. Baritone Erich Parce is not the most subtle of singers, but then this music hardly requires one; that said, he certainly makes the most of these grim lyrics - ‘And young ladies and old biddies/Little kiddies, too, why not?’ - the composer himself playing the jaunty piano part. Black humour indeed.

‘ The Corpse Carrier’s Tango’ has plenty of rhythmic verve, Angela Niederloh singing with abandon - and rather too much wobble. The recording is close, but warm and detailed, and anyone expecting a spikier idiom may be surprised by the strong vein of almost Mahlerian lyricism on display. It’s put to good use in ‘Heil, Sachsenhausen!’ where the cutting curses ‘Scheissen Polack, clod’ are accompanied by music of real warmth. The mournful cello line is especially telling here, Parce’s casual observations - ‘Our legs thin as bamboo shoots/Death’s heads looked like blackened cactuses’ - rendered all the more shocking by his controlled, rather detached, delivery.

A cigar-puffing Churchill is the subject of the slinky little number ‘Mr C’, in which Niederloh sings of her hopes that he might defeat the Nazis soon - even as early as 1943 - and treat Hitler ‘to a funeral’. History has shown that this was a very forlorn hope indeed, which makes this song all the more poignant. The work ends in darkness and turbulence with ‘Adolf’s Farewell to the World’, Parce and Niederloh in ringing form. Schoenfield plays a mean piano - what surge and energy - Laura DeLuca’s wild, piercing clarinet especially thrilling.

A most rewarding work, and rather different from the dark melancholy of the Ghetto Songs, translated from the Yiddish by Bret Werb. Shifreie is the poet’s daughter, whose portrait hangs on the wall by his bed. The cello and violin set the scene with a heartfelt prelude, baritone Morgan Smith warmly expressive as the doting father. This is music of more subtle sentiment, and even Niederloh as the child calibrates her voice accordingly. A touching, haunting piece, beautifully executed.

Different again is the anguish of ‘Moments of Despair’, in which the poet reflects on the horrors of the ghetto. The stentorian piano chords and spiky violin paint a ghastly picture, before breaking into a wild gallop. There’s a strong Expressionist flavour to this music, all crazy angles and manic gestures, Niederloh and Smith singing with astonishing bite and intensity. More than a hint of Berg here, the ‘Gling glong!’ of ‘Tolling Bells’ measuring out the agony. No simple Mahlerian onomatopoeia this, the singers underpinned by music that’s both simple and forthright.

Even starker is the contrast between the imagined fields and the very real ghetto streets in ‘Our Springtime’. Simple, bucolic pleasures dimly remembered, the season of rebirth and renewal cruelly subverted, the earth now ‘One giant graveyard’. The music is suitably austere. The clarinet solo that opens ‘Ray of Sunshine’ ushers in a bustling tune, to which the mezzo gives soaring voice. Hope and animation are the keynotes here, the music rising and falling to great effect. And then there’s the short-lived optimism of ‘Moments of Confidence’ - the words ‘Jews, let us be cheerful’ sung to music of some animation. Niederloh and Smith acquit themselves well in these rapid-fire lyrics, but really it’s the instrumentalists who galvanise the piece with some of the most trenchant playing on this disc.

Gerard Schwarz’s piece - like Schoenfield’s, a Music of Remembrance commission - was written in memory of his grandparents, Rudolf and Jeanette Weiss, who perished in the camp at Riga. In the liner-notes he speaks of the work as a tone poem; in essence it seems to be a celebration of life, from its elegiac opening through to music of some ardour and thrust, all most sensitively scored and lovingly phrased. The wind playing in the military march is especially fine, the ensuing waltz strangely distorted. There is none of the sardonic humour of Schoenfield’s pieces, but then this is a simpler, more direct idiom the emotions of which need no underscoring or emphasis. Moreover, there’s a quiet nobility here that is most affecting and the funeral march a splendid, rather Handelian, affair. It ends poignantly, with an iridescent epilogue in which Mina Miller’s celestial tones are beautifully caught.

This is a most rewarding disc, and not at all the unremitting gloom one might expect. Even though they are at some remove from the events depicted here, both Schoenfield and Schwarz have managed to tap into - and celebrate - life in the shadow of terrible adversity. All credit to Music of Remembrance for commissioning these pieces. Even if the singing is a bit variable this remains a very enterprising release indeed. A little off the beaten track perhaps but it’s certainly worth the detour.

Dan Morgan