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S & H Concert Review

Holocaust Memorial Day Concert, Purcell Room, 29 January 2002 (MA)

Katharine Gowers (violin)
Antje Weithaas (violin)
Tatja Masurenko (viola)
Natalie Clein (cello)
Charles Owen (piano)
Pascal Theatre Company: Daniel Ben-Zenou, Amanda Boxer, Louisa Clein, Ruth Posner, Thomas Kampe, Ian Watts


Music and words are unequal partners, each with respective strengths. Words can be more direct than music can ever be; music can be intense in a way that words will never know. Put them side by side and the inequalities show.

Two days after the official ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’, the cellist Natalie Clein and her cousin, the playwright Julia Pascal, joined forces to mark the occasion: music by composers who were exiled, or killed, by the Nazis, interspersed with readings from Pascal’s Holocaust-inspired dramas. The evening opened with the Five Pieces for string quartet (1923) by Ervin Schulhoff, born in Prague in 1894 and dead – of tuberculosis – in 1942 in Wülzburg (not Wurzburg, as the programme note had it). The dance-inspired music is much more adventurous than the bland title suggests: fizzing with rhythmic excitement and resourceful use of the quartet, its dry spiky humour can swiftly evaporate to suggest some dark, existentialist despair lurking behind the surface jollity; the lyricism is soon poisoned. The concert ended with Schulhoff’s First Quartet, another dance-based work – and, again, much deeper than its surfaces were prepared to admit. Its melodic lines move disconcertingly swiftly from a terse elegance to brioso, almost skinhead enthusiasm. But in the exquisite closing bars Schulhoff drops his macho guard: a rocking figure in the viola triggers a responding tag in the cello, while the violins sing in plangent chords above. It is very beautiful.

Sandwiched between the Schulhoffs were three further items: the brief, Bergian Adagio from the Piano Sonata by Gideon Klein (1919–44), perhaps the most gifted of all the composers incarcerated in Terezín, the gruff, vigorous Dance for string trio, written in Terezín by Hans Krása (1899–1944), and the elliptical Retrospectum, again for string trio, by Berthold Goldschmidt (1903–96), an attempt ‘to express in chamber music the ups and downs of my parents’ life in the first 30 years of the century’ – written from a vantage point near its end, 1991. Goldschmidt’s bitter-sweet musical language perches precariously over a shifting landscape of emotional ambiguity, his highly contrapuntal textures providing an intellectual underpinning for an otherwise disturbing succession of aperçus. Its shifting focus makes it a difficult piece to bring off, but the four ladies in this impromptu quartet brought it to passionate life. They play, indeed, as if they have been playing together for years, in a blend of complete technical competence and emotional sensitivity – they revealed depths of feeling in the Schulhoff, too, that I had not previously noticed. It was both thrilling and moving. Poor Charles Owen hardly had a chance to shine, though the Klein indicated considerable musicianship: the only other piece that featured him, Bloch’s Jewish Song for cello and piano, was pulled from the programme to bring down its length.

And that length can be put down to rather too generous a helping of extracts from Julia Pascal’s plays. Each was absorbing – a Jew trapped in 1940 Vienna, writing a last letter to his mother to record the degradations visited on his people by the Nazis; a Jewish music teacher, pre-War, shrugging off the Nazi threat, as so many did – fatally; an outline of collaboration on occupied Guernsey, drawn from contemporary documents. Less would have been more, but the drama did provide the human immediacy the music could not – music doesn’t express itself in terms of cruelty and treachery and fear – and it brought home the brutality more effectively than many a TV documentary: the actors in Julia Pascal’s school, reading from published scripts, commanded complete silence from the near-capacity Purcell Room audience. But somehow the mix didn’t work: the horrors brought to life by the acting suggested that the music was something of a luxury, and the music indeed removed us from the barbarity the words evoked. Yet that, of course, was daily life for millions under Hitler, Stalin and countless minor despots, and even more pointedly so for composers like Hans Krása and Gideon Klein in Terezín, continuing to create while death stalked past their windows. Perhaps the very dislocation of this concert can teach us something.

Martin Anderson

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