Terezín - The Music 1941-44
Hard on the heels of Channel Classics' outstanding Klein and Ullmann coupling (CCS1691, 12/91) comes this rival two-disc compilation devoted to the work of Jewish musicians incarcerated in the Theresienstadt ghetto camp. There is some overlap but a rather different emphasis. For Channel Classics, violist Mark Ludwig organized up-to-the-minute digital recordings of music of undoubted excellence. Producer Alexander Goldscheider has scoured Europe for existing tapes and comes up with a wider range of material, concerned as much to document the spiritual resistance of an isolated and terrorized community as to rehabilitate the scores themselves. The notes are copious, passionate, relentlessly well-intentioned, though not always felicitously expressed.
Disc one begins strongly with two of the Gideon Klein pieces I so admired in December. The mildly Schoenbergian Piano Sonata suffers here from disagreeable piano tone and offers no competition to Virginia Eskin's supercharged account, although Varda Nishri's lighter articulation in the finale is undeniably attractive. This version of the String Trio was originally available on a Panton LP and again it proves a less overwhelming experience in what is conceivably a more naturally idiomatic performance than that of the Hawthorne Quartet. The central variations on a Moravian folk song flow more easily here without perhaps plumbing the depths implied by the Lento marking. Ullmann's Third String Quartet, also composed in the camp, is presented in a live recording by the Martinu Quartet. Once more I marginally prefer the American group.
After this, the collections diverge, and Romantic Robot's first disc concludes with the Panton tapings of Ullmann's Sixth Piano Sonata (a valuable addition to the catalogue despite an over-reliance on sequences and some jangly piano sound) and Hans Krasa's more obviously ethnic Tanec for string trio. Krasa, born in 1899, worked, like Ullmann, under Zemlinsky at the New German Theatre in Prague, yet his style was always more cosmopolitan, veering towards the music of Stravinsky and Roussel. His children's opera Brundibar was initially staged in Prague, later achieving a legendary run of 55 performances within the Theresienstadt camp. The present tape, apparently derived from Czech television, features the close-miked Bambini di Praga and some quasi-Mantovani strings which cannot be right. Even so, the melodic ideas preserve a Weillian snap and boulevardier charm which the middle-of-the-road approach does not entirely betray. More Ullmann follows: a selection of songs, most of them unexpectedly restrained in idiom, reining in the expressionism in the interests of communicating text. Wobbly Emilie Berendsen does her best.
I was more impressed by the Four Songs on Chinese Verse by Pavel Haas, born in Brno in 1899. Even more than his younger contemporary Gideon Klein, Haas rejects the easy anonymity of the sub-Schoenberg school, remaining true to the less fashionable musical ideals of Janacek, his teacher from 1920–22. Where other Janacek pupils became mere imitators or else abandoned the style altogether, Haas succeeds in assimilating Janacek's methods into his own idiom, employing concise, expressive motifs within textures of remarkable melodic, harmonic and rhythmic freedom. His work was also influenced by Moravian folk song, Jewish chant and the rhythms of jazz. There can be no doubt that he was among the most gifted of all twentieth-century Czech composers. The songs are performed here in a ruggedly declamatory style. The recording itself is flawed: the vocal image tends to 'bleed' at moments of stress. Not entirely grateful music-making but essential listening; you may feel that any criticism is out of place.'