Classical CD Reviews

“Brundibar” – Music by Composers in Theresienstadt: KRASA: Suite from Brundibar; ULLMANN: String Quartet No. 3; KLEIN: String Trio; HAAS: String Quartet No. 2 – The Nash Ensemble – Hyperion

The chamber music on this CD demonstrates why four Czech composers who died in Nazi concentration camps deserve to be remembered.

Published on February 16, 2013

“Brundibar” – Music by Composers in Theresienstadt (1941-1945): KRASA: Suite from Brundibar; ULLMANN: String Quartet No. 3; KLEIN: String Trio; HAAS: String Quartet No. 2 ‘From the Monkey Mountains’ – The Nash Ensemble – Hyperion CDA67973, 74:03 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

For the last two decades the musical world has been recording Jewish European composers who lost their lives in German concentration camps. It’s now clear that there was much music composed during their internment that deserves recognition. The four Czech composers on this disc were all living in Theresienstadt from approximately December of 1941 to October 16, 1944, when all but Klein were transferred to Auschwitz and sent directly to the gas chambers. Klein died at a smaller camp in January, 1945.

Theresienstadt was an old garrison town built for 6000 people that the Nazis crammed 60,000 into as a staging area for Auschwitz. But it had an incredible musical and cultural life that allowed for concerts because the Nazis used it as a demonstration to cover up the deplorable conditions in other concentration camps. The International Red Cross visited it in June of 1944 and gave it their seal of approval, after which the Nazis made a propaganda film and then sent the prisoners on to Auschwitz. But the musicians survived, even thrived. Victor Ullmann commented, ‘Theresienstadt has served to enhance, not to impede, my musical activities, that by no means did we sit weeping by the waters of Babylon and our will to create was equal to our will to live.’

Pavel Haas is the best known of the unfortunate group of composers living in Theresienstadt. He was Janacek’s prize pupil between 1920-22 at the Brno Conservatory, where he integrated the master’s musical style – rhythmic complexity, Czech folk songs, and brief sharply accented musical motifs. Haas added Jewish music and jazz, both prevalent in the 1920s, to his oeuvre. His String Quartet No. 2 ‘From the Monkey Mountains’ (1925) was inspired by a summer vacation to the Moravian mountains. The composer describes the work: “This carefree composition is entirely dominated by movement – whether it be the rhythms of the open field and birdsong, the halting progress of farm wagons, the warm melody of human feeling, and the cool, calm play of moonbeams, or the wild exuberance of a night of pleasure….” Each of the movements paint a musical picture of his trip: Landscape; Coach, Coachman and Horse; The Moon and Me; and Wild Night. This is a significant addition the early European 20th-century quartet literature – full of the beauty of bittersweet sadness that predicts Haas’ (and Europe’s) tragic future. He used folk melodies, sliding glissandos, frenetic and ebullient tempos that celebrate life. Those wanting to explore Haas further should hear his Third Quartet, one of the masterpieces of the 20th-century.

Hans Krasa (1899-1944) studied with Zemlinsky and Roussel. His Symphony No. 1 was performed by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in 1926. He wrote the children’s opera Brundibar (Bumblebee) in 1938 for a competition that never was held because of the Nazi invasion. Krasa re-orchestrated it in 1942 for performance in Theresienstadt. The version recorded here was orchestrated by David Matthews for the Nash Ensemble. The work is basically melodic, whimsical, with a tart feel to it that reminds me of neoclassical Stravinsky, or Kurt Weill. It’s delightful – reflecting the story of two children who are harassed by the organ-grinder Brundibar, and helped by animals to find milk for their sick mother

Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) composed his String Quartet No. 3 in 1943. He studied with Schoenberg, and Zemlinsky. This fourteen-minute work is modern, but tonally based. Highlights include a clever pizzicato-filled Presto, a sad but melodic Largo, and an assertive finale.   Gideon Klein (1919-1945) was twenty-two when he arrived in Theresienstadt in 1941. While there, he accompanied many performances as a pianist and composed several works. The emotional center of his String Trio is the beautiful Lento, based on a Moravian folksong.

The performances and sound on this disc do full justice to these forgotten and significant composers.

—Robert Moon

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