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Breaking the Silence
Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Five Pieces for String Quartet (WV68) [15:54]
Viktor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
String Quartet No.3, Op.46 (in one movement) [13:48]
Eric Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
String Quartet No.3, Op.34 [23:54]
David ZEHAVI (1910-1977)
A Walk to Caesarea (Eli,Eli) (arr. Boris Pigovat) [2:20]
Clarion Quartet
rec. 2018, Mary Pappert School of Music, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, USA
KLANGLOGO KL1415 [56:00]

The Clarion Quartet is resolute in its mission “of honouring the composers silenced by tyranny and oppression” and as part of their ‘research’ they travelled to Theresienstadt, the German name for the Czech former garrison town of Terezín. As much as anything else they wished to play Viktor Ullmann’s string quartet no.3 in the place it was conceived. They quote Ullmann’s famous and unequivocal statement “By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavour with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live”. Ullmann’s defiance was shared by all the composers who ended up there as well as the musicians who formed the orchestras the Nazis encouraged, an example of the unfathomable dichotomy that defined their brutality, at the same time laying hand in glove with the German love of art and culture. In fact, the composers who ended up there were actively encouraged to create, even though what they created was described by the Nazis as Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music). These artists were determined to rise above the madness their captors established instead of refusing to create, and many works first saw the light of day in the appalling conditions of the concentration camp. The Germans were fond of cynically presenting Theresienstadt as a ‘model camp’ or as a ‘gift of a town’ for Jews and, in this way sought to pull the wool over the eyes of organisations such as the Salvation Army.

Only one work on this disc was, in fact, created in Theresienstadt: Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet was premièred in 1924 and was his breakthrough as a composer; it is a work that shows an original thinker of great sophistication, so it is perplexing to read that critics at the time considered it, in that disdainful way that critics sometimes have, as little more than “cute dance numbers”. It is a great deal more than that, demonstrating a keen sense of rhythm and fun while showing an acute understanding of the mechanics of a string quartet, overlaid with an appreciation of jazz. It also shows how much material Schulhoff could get into the shortest of time spans, as the third movement alla Czeca, at little over a minute and a half amply proves. The final piece is played in a way that is commensurate with the urgency of the music, ending the work in a flourish. There is beauty and excitement in equal measure in these five brilliant pieces and no listener today could fail to be impressed. The performance here is crisp, rounded and shows the Clarion’s enjoyment in the playing, making the whole experience infectious.

Viktor Ullmann’ third string quartet was composed in the concentration camp, an important work in the all-too-small body of his work, though an astonishing 23 of his works (out of a total of around 65) were composed in the camp for as he declared “It should be emphasised that my musical work was stimulated by Theresienstadt, not stunted”. The quartet begins with an achingly nostalgic melody that perhaps seeks to define Ullmann’s life before deportation, later violently disturbed by a savage presto which results in a kind of nothingness from which an atmosphere of floating in a void emerges. Eventually another wave of brutality treats material from the beginning in the most violent way before the original melody returns to quell the violence. Does this mean that even highly organised savagery will ultimately fail in the face of an unquenchable desire on the part of mankind to survive against all attempts to destroy it? I like to think so.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s fate was in marked contrast to those unlucky enough to be caught up in the madness of the holocaust. He was only nine when Mahler pronounced him a genius, a pretty good start for anyone. Having been persuaded by influential theatre director Max Reinhardt to go to Hollywood, Korngold quickly established himself as a film composer of great renown and between 1934 and 1946 had composed 18 scores; that for the film The Sea Wolf is probably the most well-known of them. By the time he had composed his third string quartet, he had also won two Oscars. He was well established in Hollywood already, so that following Hitler’s annexation of Austria he decided to remain in the USA and thus was saved the fate so many others, including Schulhoff and Ullmann, were destined for. His string quartet embodies many of the hallmarks that brought him such success in America for it is lush with a filmic sweep that gives it great appeal, with an optimism born of confidence and a certainty that what he wrote was worth it. Korngold was, as many composers are, a great self-quoter and he ‘borrowed’ a great deal of material from his film scores that can be heard in this quartet. It is an extremely attractive work that merits many listenings, each one building up an increasing admiration for it.

The final brief offering on this disc is a version for string quartet by Boris Pigovat of a setting by David Zehavi of a short poem by Hannah Szenes. It is an example of how one wishes more could be made of such an affecting melody.

One of the short essays in the booklet is entitled Late Justice and sub-titled ‘Three artistic biographies, three different musical languages – one shared fate’. The fate referred to is the fate that befell the work of these composers along with many more like Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein. The hiatus caused by the Nazi period effectively eliminated their names and their music from the public’s mind (with the exception of Korngold’s film music) and The Clarion Quartet’s point is that it is up to musicians like them to work hard to bring their names and their music back into the public domain and to help win new generations of music lovers for their creations. I couldn’t agree more. Decca brought out a series quite a few years ago entitled Entartete Musik, laying the foundation for the rediscovery of these wonderful composers. There have been more recordings since then, but it will probably take a great deal more effort before their works are featured more often in concerts. The fate of three of the people involved on this disc was much more heart-breaking. Hannah Szenes the young poet who wrote ‘Walking to Caesarea’ emigrated from Hungary to Palestine, trained as a Special Operations Executive paratrooper and aged 22 was parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1943 and crossed into German-occupied Hungary only to be captured shortly afterwards and executed by firing squad in 1944. Schulhoff was arrested shortly before emigrating to the Soviet Union, of which he had become a citizen, and was sent to a concentration camp in Wülzburg, Bavaria where he died after contracting tuberculosis, while Ullmann along with Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa were sent to Auschwitz where they were almost instantly sent to their deaths in the gas chambers. It seems even more ironic yet serves to emphasis the Nazis paranoiac attitude to Jews that in fact Ullmann was never raised as a Jew, his parents having converted to Catholicism decades before and that his father was ennobled following a distinguished army career, ending up as a Colonel. Ullmann too fought in the First World War on the Italian front at Isonzo, a fearful battlefield. None of this cut any ice in the demented minds of the architects of death who were determined to eliminate the Jewish race in its entirety. Though the thought of so many talents being snuffed out so early in their careers is so unreservedly abhorrent, we have their works to serve as a sweet legacy that underlines the unquenchable urge to create that will always rise above the horror of warped ideologies.

The Clarion Quartet are to be congratulated for helping to keep works such as these before the public as much as they can, and the playing is commensurate with the quartet’s lofty and noble aims. There are many more works which suffered being either ignored or passed over and forgotten during this frightful period and I look forward to the Clarion Quartet and others unearthing them for music lovers everywhere to enjoy.

Steve Arloff

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