Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Brundibar: A Triumph of the Spirit

Brundibar - Music by Composers in Theresienstadt
The Nash Ensemble
Hyperion

Theresienstadt was the primary concentration camp for Czech Jews, and in that crucible the interred musicians forged an artistic life that was as creative as it was transient. The four composers on this disc were the most prominent to be interred at the camp. All had promising careers cut short by their arrest, all composed and performed in the camp, and all died in Auschwitz before the end of the war.

The Nash Ensemble presents works written at Theresienstadt by Hans Krasa, Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, and Pavel Hass.

The title work, Brundibar is a children's opera written by Hans Krasa in 1938. Stylistically, it's similar to Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf". While tuneful and charming, it also has an underlying acerbic quality that give the music some tang. The original composition calls for an orchestra. The arrangement on this recording by David Matthews closely reflects the limited assortment of instruments available in the camp, and this stripped-down version gives this instrumental suite an additional edge.

Viktor Ullmann's third string quartet was composed in 1943, and is the only one of his quartets to survive. It's a highly chromatic and expressive work that compares favorably (I think) to the early quartets of Bartok.

Gideon Klein was greatly influenced by Alban Berg, as his String Trio shows. While the trio pushes to the edge of chromaticism, it never quite crosses over into atonality. Its nevertheless a compact, well-constructed work, completed just days before Klein was shipped to Auschwitz.

String Quartet No. 2 "From the Monkey Mountains" by Pavel Haas was inspired by the composer's trip to the Moravian mountains of the same name. The quartet is a programmatic piece depicting various aspects of the the trip, from the inspiring scenery to an amusingly bumpy cart ride. The quartet sounds much like those of Janacek and Smetana, weaving folk elements into a decidedly classical structure.

The Nash Ensemble plays with precision and energy. All four works are compositions of substance that deserve to be heard on their own merits. The fact that they were composed under the most hopeless of circumstances gives them additional emotional power. As Ullman wrote, "our will to create was equal to our will to live."

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