Voices of Defiance = ULLMANN: String Quartet No. 3, OP. 46; SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 68; LAKS: String Quartet No. 3 – Dover Quartet – Cedille CDR 90000 173, 73:06 (10/13/17) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

 The Dover Quartet embraces three visions of the Holocaust, music that testifies to Humanity’s stoic resilience.

The Dover Quartet presents three composers who were victims of, and who fought against, Fascism. Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) composed his 3rd String Quartet in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in 1943; he was murdered soon after he was moved to Auschwitz the following year. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) composed his 2nd Quartet in Moscow in 1944, following horrific scenes during the Siege of Leningrad and the long fight between the Soviets and the Nazis. Simon Laks (1901-1983) wrote his 3rd Quartet in Auschwitz in 1945; that year he was transported to Dachau, which was liberated before he could be killed.

I do not usually embrace Holocaust themes, although some readers may recall my review years ago of Great Conductors of the Third Reich, a video of those eminent artists whose participation in Nazi musical events offered legitimacy to a degenerate regime. Moreover, at an Emory University lecture series, I had the honor to meet Elie Wiesel, who had become the major voice of conscience for the victims of organized, state racism. Cellist Camden Shaw of the Dover Quartet provides a powerful Note to this Cedille disc (rec. 19-21 March 2016), tracing the etiology of the ensemble’s relationship to the Ullmann score (1943) and the group’s discovery of Simon Laks.  Having embraced the Laks work, the Dover Quartet juxtaposed its 1945 origin with the 1944 Shostakovich piece and had a perfect triptych in defiance of fascism.  For my own part, I offer my remarks in the spirit of “lest we forget” how easily complacency and an ongoing atmosphere of insensitivity can lead to the sacrifice of our basic humanity.

The Ullmann Quartet No. 3—written in the Theresienstadt Camp—pays tribute to the composer’s studies with Alexander von Zemlinsky and the serial ideas from Arnold Schoenberg. Darkly chromatic and temperamentally melancholy, the first movement—Allegro moderato, Presto, Largo—evolves deliberately, almost stealthily, much according to principles established by Beethoven, as cross-fertilized by Debussy. A sudden thrust into ¾ ushers in a grotesque waltz element in slashing figures and pizzicato, perhaps a tribute to the acerbic wit we find in Alban Berg. The da capo return to the opening motifs has lost its innocence. Ullmann proceeds to slow, intricate fugal conclusion that embraces 12-tone technique via a 13-note subject. An eerie haunted beauty emanates from the strings, leads to an explosive, brief second movement—Allegro vivace, Poco largamente. This music has a voluptuous energy, throbbing with life into a fortissimo restatement of the opening material, now set in glowing G Major. I think of the Hemingway dictum that “a man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

The Shostakovich expansive Quartet No. 2 was written in nineteen days at a special artist retreat at Ivanovo, meant to protect creative persons from the Nazi invasion of Leningrad. A nervous A Major sequence opens the piece’s Overture, not quite settled in its aggression and grim resolve. A decisively folk element permeates the more dance-like figures, again driven and “torrential” in the sonata-form manner of Beethoven or Bartok. At moments, a sense of panic and imminent hysteria infects the score. The Recitative and Romanza ensues almost attacca—on a dominant seventh chord. The first violin (Joel Link) muses over sustained harmonies, at first somber and wounded, at moments reminiscent of the Albinioni Adagio.  The cantorial affect becomes tender in the Romance, a dreamy and nostalgic haze. The Waltz—played on muted instruments—has its model on Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite, Op. 56; but Shostakovich wants a danse macabre, rife with sinister elements, including a tempo and emotional violence that only the dead or those hastening to death could enjoy. The Theme and Variations last movement presents a Russian tune on the viola (Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt) that undergoes tremendous tension and polyphony in the course of a huge arch form that ends in a minor, much in the spirit of Mahler’s “progressive tonality.” The virtually screeching climax will resolve into a mood almost playful before the final, emphatically crushing last chords.

Simon Laks wrote a memoir, Music of Another World, in which he recounts his horrific experiences at Auschwitz. Laks builds his lachrymose Quartet No. 3 on Polish folk tunes, music forbidden by the Nazis. The “program” suggests a train ride—Allegro quasi presto—that has euphoric elements in modal harmony. Some potent “drone” effects mix with the strident colloquy of violin and viola and the torrent of sounds that urge us forward. The heart of the Quartet lies in its Poco lento, sostenuto second movement. Two folk melodies supply the basis for what cellist Shaw calls “the most impassioned and heartbreaking… lonesome sound.” The second theme achieves a paroxysm of yearning. To offset the grueling intensity, Laks writes a sustained pizzicato movement, Vivace non troppo, as his “scherzo.”  Shaw calls the Trio section “sweet and carefree.” The last movement, Allegro moderato giusto, bears a spirit of heroic redemption, of a man’s having returned from visions of mortality now ready to re-engage his life. The contrapuntal, martial element bespeaks the capability to recover even from having confronted the demon.

—Gary Lemco