Friday 15 July 2022

Farewell Comrade: Music written in the shadow of death, Theresienstadt 1941-1945

Pen and ink drawing of a jewish worker in Theresienstadt assigned to Bedřich Fritta, Theresienstadt, 1942. In the collection of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland.
Pen and ink drawing of a Jewish worker in Theresienstadt assigned to Bedřich Fritta, Theresienstadt, 1942. In the collection of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland.

Farewell Comrade: 
Music written in the shadow of death, Theresienstadt 1941-1945, Ilse Weber, Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Adolf Strauss, Carlo Taube; Ema Nikolovska, Simon Wallfisch, Julius Drake; Temple Music at Temple Church
Reviewed 14 July 2022

A powerful evening of remarkable music, songs written by composers interned in Theresienstadt from the simply touching to the powerfully complex

At Temple Church last night (14 July 2022), Temple Music presented Farewell Comrade, a programme that had as its subtitle Music written in the shadow of death, Theresienstadt 1941-1945. Accompanied by pianist Julius Drake, mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska and baritone Simon Wallfisch sang songs by Ilse Weber (1903-1944), Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), Gideon Klein (1919-1945), Adolf Strauss (1902-1944) and Carlo Taube (1897-1944), all of whom were imprisoned in Theresienstadt. Much of the music was written there; none of the composers featured survived. Music was preserved by friends, or buried to be retrieved when Theresienstadt was liberated. 

Viktor Ullmann was firm that his music was not written about Theresienstadt, he wrote "By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavour with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live." But Ullmann's songs that were written and performed in the camp seem to have a slightly gnomic quality about them, a sense of being about more than they reveal on the surface, as if there was much that could not be safely said or sung explicitly, and perhaps that is what gives them their power.

The evening had personal connections. The programme was being given in memory of Adolf and Frieda Rix who were deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and murdered in Auschwitz in 1944, and members of their surviving family were present at the concert. Baritone Simon Wallfisch (who was a last-minute replacement for Konstantine Krimmel who, unfortunately tested positive for COVID) is the grandson of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, the cellist who is a surviving member of the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz.

We began with Ilse Weber, a talented amateur poet and musician who wrote more than 60 poems many of which she set to music and accompanied on her guitar. Ich wandre durch Theresienstadt (sung by Ema Nikolovska) with it's folk-like melody had a remarkably direct treatment of what are highly emotionally charged words. Nikolovska gave us a finely sung account, with beautiful sense of line and strong words.

Next Simon Wallfisch sang Ullmann's Beryoskele (from Three Yiddish Songs), a very late work dating from 1944. The poem was simply about a birch tree, but the complex and substantial piano part rendered it far more profound and dark. There was nothing last-minute about Wallfisch's poised performance, allowing the music to make its effect and the result was rather powerful. Gideon Klein's Wiegenlied (sung by Nikolovska) is his arrangement of a celebrated Hebrew melody, and combined a folk-ish melody with complex, romantic harmonies with some modernist hints, to lovely effect.

Pavel Haas' Four Songs on Chinese Poetry (sung by Wallfisch) were written whilst he was in Theresienstadt, and the songs present a rather bleak vision. Haas' substantial and complex piano parts make each song a work of dark drama, moving the slightly gnomic Chinese poetry (doubly translated, from Chinese into German and then from German into Czech) into something powerful. Yes, the final song might be about a sleepless night, but is was about so much more. The first song, 'I heard the wild geese' moved from the evocative to the intensely dramatic, Wallfisch's thoughtfully intense performance contrasting with the remarkable drama in the piano (it is perhaps worth noting that Haas himself was at the piano for the first performance in Theresienstadt). 'In the bamboo grove' contrasted the vividly rhythmic piano with a more direct vocal line, an included hints of more popular style. 'The moon is far from home' moved from darkly mysterious to intensely dramatic. 'A sleepless night' had the restless piano circling round and round, the voice intense, simple yet complex, developing into a vividly dark ending.

Ullmann's Liebeslieder (sung by Nikolovska) date from 1939 and set poems by Ricarda Huch, words that are complex and expressive to which Ullmann put music that is highly expressionist in style. In the first song, Nikolovska impressed by the way she made the vocal line, with its irregularities and wide leaps, into something sinuously expressive. She and Drake created something rather evocative. The second song, 'At the piano', had hints of a popular waltz, but pushed expressionistically into other realms, to something more poetic. The third song, 'Storm song' was fast and vivid, the intensity of Nikolovska's delivery combining with the brilliance of her tone. 'If I ever succeed in creating beauty' returned us to an expressionist, highly seductive sinuous melody, yet leading to intense drama. Finally, 'O beautiful hand' had a highly charged vocal line over a more reticent piano.

Wallfisch then sang Weber's Ade, Kamerad! An apparently simple, folk-like song yet another pregnant with emotion, describing Weber's departure from a friend as she boards the Polentransport.

Ullmann's Holderlin Fragmente are amongst the songs he wrote in Theresienstadt whose manuscripts were preserved by friends. Again we have complex poetry, full of remarkable imagery. Nikolovska sang the first two songs, both had seductive textures. 'Sunset' was expressionist and intense, a wonderful musical recreation of the poetry, whilst 'Spring' moved into real rapture. Then Wallfisch sang 'Evening fantasy', at first it seemed calmer and more traditional in style, before becoming freer and intense. But the final words 'Old age will be peaceful and serene' had strong effect when you realised the music was written by a man who was almost certain that he would never reach old age.

Adolf Strauss' Ich weiss bestimmt, ich werd' dich wiedersehen! (sung by Nikolovska) is a tango, invoking a delightful cabaret atmosphere. Yet the tropes of the words, seeing you again, have a bitter-sweet meaning as they refer to Strauss' wish to see his wife again (he did not, he died in Auschwitz, she survived). Nikolovska and Drake successfully negotiated this bitter-sweet atmosphere moving from the delightful to something more moving.

Ullmann's Drei Lieder (sung by Wallfisch) set poems by the 19th-century Swiss poet Conrad Ferdinand Meyer. The songs were begun before Ullmann was interned in Theresienstadt, but were revised there and premiered in the camp in 1943. There is something almost cabaret like about the songs, but this is the cabaret of Weill or Schoenberg, music at its edgiest and punchiest. There might have been popular hints in 'Harvesters' song' but the rhythms were strong and the harmonies dark, hinting at anger. 'Sowers' saying' was less manic but no less intense whilst 'Die Schweizer' was a curious ballad about a strike, in the late 19th century, of the Pope's Swiss Guard. Did the subject hold some sort of inner meaning for Ullmann? The song was full of strong rhythms and despite the cabaret-ballad influences was full of dark drama. 

Carlo Taube (a pupil of Busoni) wrote Ein judisches Kind (sung by Nikolovska) to his wife's words. Taube's voice was quite distinct, even though the music moved the folk/traditional style towards something almost Gerswhin-like at times (Taube earned a living performing in cafes). The result was very touching. Ullmann's Little Cakewalk (sung by Nikolovska) is the only one of his Chansons des enfants francaises to survived. Pointed and very jagged, almost sarcastic, yet with cabaret in the background.

We ended with perhaps one of the best known songs to come out of Theresienstadt, Ilse Weber's deceptively simple Wiegela sung by both singers.

Whilst this was an evening of music written in the shadow of Theresienstadt, what was remarkable was quite how much of the music was not explicitly about this subject. Like a significant amount of Shostakovich's smaller scale output with its intimate subtexts, many of the songs had a double life. There was a sense of them coming into focus when you knew where they were written and for whom. Yet much of this music is terrific in its own right, and we still encounter the music of Ullmann and Haas so rarely in the concert hall. I reviewed a disc of Haas' songs back in 2017, see my review, but have rarely encountered his songs live and the same goes for Ullmann.

Performances were uniformly excellent. Julius Drake performed heroics at the piano with great aplomb. Clearly both Ullmann and Haas must have been strong pianists and their piano writing pulled no punches yet Drake made his contribution simply part of the larger drama. Both Nikolovska and Wallfisch impressed with the poise and style of their performances, balancing the more emotionally charged moments with music of striking complexity.

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Interior life: Malcolm Martineau and friends in the complete songs of Henri Duparc - record review
  • Telling tales of love: Ailish Tynan and James Baillieu at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Dutch director Annemiek van Elst brings a very different ethos to the comedy of Britten's Albert Herring for St Paul's Opera - opera review
  • Style and substance: a fascinating & engaging account of The Yeomen of the Guard at the Grange - opera review
  • Growing up with Hildegard: Voice trio on the importance of Hildegard of Bingen's music to them alongside contemporary pieces - interview 
  • Gareth Wilson & choir of Girton College, Cambridge return to the richly textured music of Marc'Antonio Ingegneri for a second disc on Toccata Classics - record review
  • Beyond the Garden: Developing an Opera, composer Stephen McNeff explores how he and librettist Aoife Mannix developed their new opera - feature article
  • Evoking the Ancien Régime: grandeur & imagination in Jean-Joseph de Mondonville's Grands Motets - record review
  • Added depth: Julien Van Mellaerts & James Baillieu mix Die schöne Müllerin with the poems not set by Schubert, read by Christopher Purves, to remarkable effect - record review
  • Arun Ghosh's The Canticle of the Sun at the Spitalfields Music Festival - concert review
  • New ways of working: composer Andrew Chen has two contrasting pieces at this year's Cheltenham Music Festival - interview
  • Unsung Heroines: Lauren Fagan & Opera Holland Park Young Artists in a celebration of women composers and more - concert review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month