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Brundibár - Music by composers in Theresienstadt (1941-1945)
Hans KRASA (1899-1944)
Suite from Brundibár (arr. D Matthews) [18:18]
Viktor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
String Quartet No.3 op.46 [13:47]
Gideon KLEIN (1919-1945)
String Trio [11:50]
Pavel HAAS (1899-1944)
String Quartet No.2 op.7 From the Monkey Mountains (Z opičích hor) [30:06]
The Nash Ensemble: (Ian Brown (piano), Stephanie Gonley (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Philippa Davies (flute), Mark David (trumpet), Laura Samuel (violin), Paul Watkins (cello), Richard Hosford (clarinet), Chris Brannick (percussion))
rec. St. Michaels Church, Highgate, London, UK, 27-29 February 2012.
HYPERION CDA67973 [74:03]

In the 1780s, around the time that Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro received its first performance at the Estates Theatre in Prague, and about 60 miles north of the capital, Emperor Joseph II was having a garrison town built to defend the Hapsburg Empire from the Prussians in the North. While Prague is renowned for its wealth of architectural gems Theresienstadt, or Terezín to give it its Czech name, is known as a prison, ghetto and as a town used as a transit camp by the Nazis to move its captives to the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau and others. It was to Terezín that thousands of Jews were shipped in conveyor belt fashion from November 1941 until the end of the war. The Council of Jewish Elders who administered the ghetto persuaded the Nazis to allow cultural life to flourish and this they did allowing them to create a lie that was designed to fool the world into believing that this town had been “given to the Jews” and that everything there was normal. To this end a Freizeitgestaltung (Free Time Administration) was set up which enabled the organisation of libraries, lectures, art classes and, above all, music. Orchestras and choirs were formed and, since among the inmates there numbered several composers, music was written there which has become known as the ‘Terezín archive’. The music on this disc was not all composed in the camp but all four composers ended up there before being sent to their deaths, three of them in Auschwitz.
 
The album’s title Brundibár (Bumblebee) is taken from the name of the opera for children composed by Hans Krása. This was for a competition in 1938 which never took place because of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. It received its first performance at a Jewish orphanage in 1942 by which time Krása was already in Terezín where he rearranged the music for 13 instruments. There it was given fifty-five performances, though with differing performers as many complete casts were sent onward to the concentration camps. The suite which comprises all the main tunes was originally devised in the 1990s by Petr Pokorný while the one on this disc was commissioned specially by the Nash Ensemble for string quartet, piano, flute, clarinet, trumpet and percussion from the composer David Matthews. Here it receives its first recording.
 
The opera tells the story of a brother and sister who try to get some milk for their sick mother and who have to prevail over the persecutions of the bullying organ-grinder Brundibár with the assistance of a sparrow, a cat and a dog, represented by piccolo, legato violin and clarinet. The suite gives the music another life away from the opera itself allowing the listener to focus on the music; it certainly works. I’ve not heard Pokorný’s version but the present one is truly delightful and shows the music as wonderfully melodic with a typical 1930s feel. There are similarities to the music of Weill and Eisler, in which even spiky rhythms can be charming.
 
While Krása was a native of Prague, Viktor Ullmann was born in the Moravian-Silesian town of Těšín, a town that sits right on the border with Poland following the region’s division between the two countries in 1920. In fact it is known as Český Těšín to distinguish it from the other half of the town across the river Olza which is known by its Polish name of Cieszyn. Before being sent to Terezín Ullmann had already composed two operas, a piano concerto and chamber music that included his first two string quartets, both of which were tragically lost. The String Quartet No.3 that bears the opus number 46 was written in Terezín in 1943 and is in four movements. The work flows in the manner of a seamlessly fluid single piece suffused with a bittersweet and melancholic longing which is hardly surprising given its birthplace. Despite its heartfelt overall beauty it is a generally dark work with flashes of anger that emanate from the cello when it is not acting as balm. The slow movement, a largo, is especially poignant, while the finale is fast and rhythmically exciting.
 
Gideon Klein was the youngest of the composers represented on this disc who met his death in the small Fürstengrube camp, near Katowice in Poland shortly after his 25th birthday. Arriving in Terezín at the age of 22 he was put to work helping prepare the town for a total of 60,000 people when it was originally built to accommodate only 6,000. His String Trio was completed a mere nine days before he was sent first to Auchwitz then transferred to the Fürstengrube camp. The work shows how cruel this period of history was in depriving the world of talent such as his. Marrying the traditions of his Czech homeland with influences from the second Viennese school his trio fully exploits both to achieve a musically brilliant synthesis of styles. Opening and closing with dance-inspired tunes his central movement comprises no fewer than eight variations on a Moravian folk song Ta Kněždubská vež (the Kneždub Spire); all this within its short six and a half minute span. This work is one of those that grow on you increasingly with every hearing. If it does the same to you may I suggest another equally powerful account of it because it is on a disc that comprises other works in Klein’s small output, including his Fantasie and Fugue, a piano sonata, Two Madrigals, and his arrangements of Czech and Russian folk songs. The disc in question is on KOCH 3-7230-2H1 and is part of The Terezín Music Anthology (vol.2).
 
The final work on this heart-achingly attractive disc is a particular favourite of mine: the String Quartet No.2 by Pavel Haas with its intriguing subtitle of From the Monkey Mountains which refers to the popular Vysočina region of the Moravian Highlands just outside Brno. Haas wrote it following a summer holiday there in 1925. The first movement entitled Landscape describes a lazy afternoon there and does it so beautifully and convincingly you can almost feel the sun on your back and see the heat haze. The second movement is proof of how descriptive instruments can be when a master composer puts them to work representing animals or birds or even mechanical objects. In Haas’s case this second movement, an andante in the form of a scherzo, is entitled Coach, Coachman and Horse. It is a truly fascinating musical picture of an old horse and creaking coach finding the uphill struggle almost too much to bear until, finally the brow is reached; then mercifully it’s all downhill. Haas was equally adept in describing night as well as day and the third movement Largo e misterioso carries the title The Moon and Me. This creates a wholly evocative picture of a dreamy moonlit night when the composer must have been out star-gazing. The last movement is Wild Night which is perhaps how the composer and his friends took their leave of their holiday destination. On this recording this movement includes percussion, or as another recording I have says, “jazz band”, which again reflects the times in which the work was written. There are references to Latin America with tango-like rhythms and the general atmosphere is one of celebration tinged with regret that the holiday has to end. The quartet is wonderfully exciting and thrilling. It never fails to lift my spirits until I remember the fate of this brilliantly inventive composer.
 
This disc is another in the growing musical archive of treasures written by this group of incredibly talented composers whose lives were snuffed out in their prime. At the same time these discs act as beacons that reflect the indomitable spirit that caused these works to be written in the most appalling circumstances. Despite all these composers experienced a creative urge that superseded all attempts to stifle it.
 
The Nash Ensemble turn in superb performances of these valuable works.
 
Steve Arloff 

 

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