Paul SCHOENFIELD (b.1947)
Camp Songs (Black Boehm; The Corpse Carrier's Tango; Heil,
Sachsenhausen!; Mister C.; Adolf's Farewell to the World) (2001)
Ghetto Songs (Shifrele's Portrait; Moments of Despair; Tolling
Bells; Our Springtime; A Ray of Sunshine; Moments of Confidence)
Gerard SCHWARZ (b.1947)
Rudolf and Jeanette (2007) [15:05]
Camp and Ghetto Songs
Angela Niederloh (mezzo); Erich Parce (baritone) (Camp Songs); Morgan
Smith (baritone, Ghetto Songs); Paul Schoenfield (piano); Music
of Remembrance: Mikhail Shmidt (violin), Laura DeLuca (clarinet),
Walter Gray (cello), Jonathan Green (double-bass)
Rudolf and Jeanette: Music of Remembrance/Gerard Schwarz
rec. May 2008 (Ghetto Songs, Rudolf and Jeanette), Nov.2008 (Camp
Songs), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, USA
NAXOS 8.559641 [65:05]
Good music for a good cause here.
Paul Schoenfield's Camp Songs is a setting of five poems by Aleksander Kulisiewicz, translated into English. You can trust Paul Schoenfield to create music of highest quality, colorful and powerful. But here he applies his polystylistic palette to an especially striking effect. Aleksander Kulisiewicz must have been a man of great wit and sense of humor, although often bitter, and he preserved it during the years of his imprisonment in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where these songs were written. With sardonic laugh he denies the charms of rotten "Lady Death", he mocks the blind enthusiasm of Nazi helpers, he tears the mask of lies from the pretty façade of "Kulturkampf", and absorbs with glee the sparse news about German defeats on the fronts. These are songs of mental resistance.
The composer provides music well worthy of the texts, with a matching dark humor. The merry sounds of polka, waltz, tango and foxtrot seem almost cheerful on the surface, if you don't listen to the words:
Oh, that bloody pest, the damned Germania,
Tortures men now four years in a row.
In the crematorium she roasts corpses:
It's so warm and so cozy there…
Because there one person bakes another,
Neither baker nor butcher is he;
So my friend, hurry into the oven!
Immer langsam und sicher und froh!
This dissonance is hair-rising when you try to match the two pictures in your head. In one mind, it seems impossible to let them coexist. There can't be normal life side by side with people murdering other people on a daily basis, as part of their job, with workhours and holidays. But you know that it was, it happened - and start to notice the dark undercurrents of the music, like deadly worms under the surface. This poetry is unmannered, rude, caustic - and so is the music, with stomps and bangs, citations and Kurt-Weillish ruggedness. It is hard to tell how much of the original melodies of Kulisiewicz were leveraged, but the result definitely sounds like the genuine voice of the "half-savage Pole", as this poet and journalist called himself.
In both song cycles, the composer employs minimal resources: violin, clarinet, cello, double bass and piano. Out of these five, usually only two or three are playing at any moment. But the combinations change with such kaleidoscopic speed, and are written with such skill, that the result is a rich musical texture, almost orchestral, yet never overpowering the voices.
The Ghetto Songs are more somber, more tragic, and much more Jewish (ah! this clarinet!). There is no anger or sarcasm in six poems by Mordecai Gebirtig, sung in Yiddish; there is grief, fear and hope. The music changes accordingly: it's more Lieder than Songs now. The instrumentation is a marvel. I disagree with Schoenfield's approach to Moments of Despair: in my opinion, the music contradicts the spirit of the poem:
Futile our prayers,
We’ve slipped past God’s reach,
The heavens are locked tight
As the core of the earth.
The heavens are locked tight,
And fearfully dark;
Without question or doubt,
This tortures our hearts.
Without question or doubt
The secret’s disclosed:
There is no more justice,
There is no more God.
No peace or solace,
Just hardship and pain.
What will be become of us?
What will be our fate?
But the music sounds as if Shostakovich wrote an operetta about Abduction from the Shtetl. I feel the same about A Ray of Sunshine: the lyrics speak about "a tender caress", the music sings aerobics! The final song is a wild dance of triumph, almost a csárdás. The song-cycle ends on a note of joy and confidence.
But Mordecai Gebirtig was killed in the Kraków Ghetto. Life's logic is not concert logic. What could be a stylish ending for some discs, has no right to be for this one.
And that's why the last piece of the disc is Rudolf and Jeanette, a poignant threnody by Gerard Schwarz to the memory of his grandparents, killed in a concentration camp. They lived, they loved, they were killed, and their grandson, who never saw them, sings to them a tender lullaby. The violence is never pictured explicitly. The introduction is like a sad fairy-tale. The passionate love music of Rudolf and Jeanette is interrupted, but not by a bombastic invasion a-la Leningrad Symphony - and thanks for that, it would be too primitive. However, there is something inhuman in the Nazi music, its hostility growing and growing - but instead of a tragic climax we hear an offstage quartet softly playing sweet, nostalgic Viennese waltzes, like a last memory, a last thought of life and love that were. And then Gerard Schwarz gives to his grandparents what they never had: a funeral march. It is simple and personal, and builds into an impressive crescendo. The ending is quiet and tender, like a light veil softly covering the memory.
The history did not give us many lessons. Real lessons that everyone should know, understand and remember. But one of these very few lessons is the Holocaust. It's not about the Germans and the Jews. It's about us, people, and what we can do to us, other people. Homo sapiens did not change, as a species, for the last seventy years. So it's all still there, hidden deep, and it can repeat itself, if we do not remember this lesson.
The performance is devoted. In the Schoenfield pieces, there is a fine balance between the instruments. The music is frantically fast in places, and with swift tempo changes, yet the ensemble never gets desynchronized and swings effortlessly. The clarinet is the soul of the music. The double-bass is ominous. The omnipresent piano, played by the composer himself, ties everything together. The singers have strong, attractive voices and employ excellent word-coloring. In the first cycle, the baritone (Erich Parce) is appropriately extrovert and ironic, while in the second cycle Morgan Smith applies more vibrato and sounds more vulnerable and personal. Angela Niederloh sings the two parts differently: she has Lotte Lenya-like pressure and directness in the Camp Songs, and is softer and warmer in Ghetto Songs. In the Schwarz piece, the chamber orchestra is light and sensitive. The recording quality is very good. The insert notes are informative enough, telling the stories behind the works, and providing the English texts (though they slightly differ from what is sung in the Camp Songs). Overall, this is a valuable project: for the music, for the texts, and for us staying human and - let's hope - protecting our children. This is one lesson that will not benefit from repetition.