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Hyperion Records

CDA67973 - Brundibár
A Brundibár birthday card for Eva Baierová, who played Aninka by František Zelenka (1904-1944)
Image supplied by the Jewish Museum in Prague
CDA67973

Recording details: February 2012
St Michael's Church, Highgate, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: February 2013
DISCID: EE115912
Total duration: 74 minutes 1 seconds

'Ullmann's concentrated, sole surviving quartet breathes a rarefied air, every bar testifying to his complete mastery of quartet-writing' (Gramophone)

'Powerfully emotional works, performed here by The Nash Ensemble with passionate conviction and great attention to detail … an impressive achievement' (BBC Music Magazine)

'These sharply contrasting pieces, played with typical Nash polish and intelligence, show there was no shared Theresienstadt style—just a collection of promising creative careers never allowed to reach fulfilment' (The Guardian)

'This important and satisfying album brings together works by four Jewish composers transported by the Nazis to the ghetto created in the Czech town of Terezin … Simon Broughton's excellent booklet note encourages further study of this extraordinary story … the superb musicians of The Nash Ensemble turn in performances of searing conviction and they have been beautifully recorded' (International Record Review)

'The Nash Ensemble's performances are top-drawer, remarkably so with the various string groupings; as usual, the Hyperion recording leaves nothing to be questioned' (The New Zealand Herald)

Brundibár
Music by composers in Theresienstadt (1941–1945)
Allegro energico  [3'49]
Allegro vivace  [5'31]
Lento  [1'59]
Presto –  [3'29]
Largo –  [3'49]
Allegro  [2'05]
Molto vivace  [3'07]
The greatest musical experiences radically alter our perspectives. This was very much the case with The Nash Ensemble’s Theresienstadt weekend. Concerts, films, talks and exhibitions examined the extraordinary cultural flowering in the ghetto-camp near Prague, set up by the Nazis in 1941, where, among thousands of others, the Czech-Jewish intelligentsia were held before transportation to death camps. The event’s force lay in its broadening of our contextual awareness, and in its revelation of the quality of the work produced … many works were outright masterpieces … the Nash, an ensemble of stars, played with great technical power and depth of feeling … the Nash should tour this internationally—it deserves to be heard around the world. (The Guardian)

The Nash Ensemble presents a programme of works written at the transit camp Theresienstadt by four Jewish composers who went on to be killed at Auschwitz, their music forgotten. In recent years it has begun to be performed again and its extraordinary quality appreciated.

One of the most popular works was Hans Krása’s enchanting children’s opera Brundibár, performed fifty-five times at the camp and presented here as a suite arranged by the composer David Matthews. Viktor Ullmann, whose chamber opera The Emperor of Atlantis is now frequently performed, is represented by his String Quartet No 3, a lyrical, sumptuous work with a wistful quality, influenced by the Second Viennese School. Pavel Haas studied with Janácek and his vividly atmospheric String Quartet No 2, ‘From the Monkey Mountains’, shows the influence of his teacher, but also a definite musical personality.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The four composers on this recording represent a lost generation of Czech music. They were working in the richly creative ferment of central Europe in the wake of Janácek, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Berg. It is often said that Janácek left no composing ‘school’ behind him, but actually his leading disciple, Pavel Haas, was killed in Auschwitz, a fate shared by all the composers represented here. They were Jewish composers in the wrong place at the wrong time. All four were on the same transport on 16 October 1944 from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, where three of them were sent straight to the gas chambers. Not only did they die premature deaths, but they have been written out of music history. Belatedly, their music is being rediscovered and its quality recognized.

Pavel Haas, Hans Krása, Viktor Ullmann and Gideon Klein were all Jewish composers working in Czechoslovakia when it was occupied by the Nazis in March 1939. The plans to turn Theresienstadt (Terezín in Czech) into a Jewish ghetto were drawn up in October 1941 and the first transports started in November that year. The cultural and concert life that developed in Theresienstadt is one of the most remarkable stories in musical history.

Theresienstadt was built in the 1780s, during the time of Mozart. But the red-brick ramparts and grid-pattern streets have none of the elegant charm we associate with Salzburg, Vienna or Prague, just sixty kilometres away. It was built as a garrison town by Emperor Joseph II and named after his mother, Maria Theresa, to defend the Hapsburg Empire from the Prussians to the north. However, it is remembered today not as a fortress, but as a prison and ghetto.

Although Theresienstadt’s cultural life has been portrayed as a deliberate Nazi propaganda tool, it developed of its own accord. Theresienstadt wasn’t an extermination camp, but a staging post for Auschwitz. Conditions were appalling, with up to 60,000 people crammed into a town built for 6,000. One in four inmates died, mainly the elderly. Music was forbidden at first, but concerts were held secretly in attics and cellars. Then the Council of Jewish Elders, who administered the ghetto, persuaded the Nazis to allow such activities and the Freizeitgestaltung (Free Time Administration) was set up to organize them.

Ironically musical life in Theresienstadt was freer than anywhere else in occupied Europe. Elsewhere, Jewish music was banned, but in the ghetto new pieces by Jewish composers were played, and even cabaret and satire flourished. So when the Red Cross started enquiring about the fate of European Jewry, Theresienstadt was shown off as a model ghetto. The International Red Cross visited on 12 June 1944 and filed favourable reports. It was after this that the Nazis decided to make a film which, despite the propaganda, does contain two important records of music in Theresienstadt: the conclusion of Pavel Haas’s Study for Strings, conducted by Karel Ancerl, and the final moments of Hans Krása’s children’s opera Brundibár, the most popular piece performed there.

Given the circumstances, it is remarkable that music was composed in Theresienstadt at all. But in fact the heightened circumstances seem to have been an impetus. According to Viktor Ullmann: ‘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.’

The children’s opera Brundibár (‘Bumblebee’) is the best-known piece from Theresienstadt, where it was performed fifty-five times. It’s a catchy and hummable score. It was composed by Hans Krása (1899–1944) and librettist Adolf Hoffmeister for a competition in 1938 which was never awarded because of the Nazi invasion. It was first performed in concert in a Prague Jewish Orphanage in early 1942, by which time the composer was already in Theresienstadt. For the Theresienstadt performances, Krása re-orchestrated it for thirteen instruments and amended Hoffmeister’s left-wing lyrics so the message was that if you club together Good will triumph over Evil.

The music is very melodic, but spiky and unsentimental. The opera tells the story of two young kids, Aninka and Pepicek, trying to get milk for their sick mother. They don’t have enough money to buy any and are persecuted by the organ-grinder Brundibár, whose music is hugely popular with the public. In despair, Aninka and Pepicek are helped by three animals—a sparrow, a cat and a dog (depicted in the music by piccolo, legato violin and clarinet). They sing a lullaby when they finally get their milk and it ends with a victory march. All the main tunes are included in the suite (devised by Petr Pokorný in the 1990s). This is the first recording of David Matthews’ version for string quartet, piano, flute, clarinet, trumpet and percussion, specially commissioned by The Nash Ensemble.

Hans Krása was born into a prosperous family in Prague. He studied with Alexander Zemlinsky and was a vocal coach at the New German Theatre (now the State Opera), where Zemlinsky was conductor. He travelled to Paris, heard the music of Stravinsky and studied with Albert Roussel. Krása’s Symphony No 1 was played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky in 1926 and his opera Verlobung im Traum (‘Betrothal in a Dream’) was awarded a Czech State Prize in 1933. In Theresienstadt he composed a number of chamber works, including the furious Tanz for string trio and an Overture for small orchestra.

Viktor Ullmann (1898–1944) composed his first two string quartets in 1923 and 1936 respectively, the second getting a London performance in 1938, but they haven’t survived. The String Quartet No 3 was composed in Theresienstadt in 1943 and is distinctly Viennese in character, following classical models with a wistful, lyrical quality. There are two sorts of compositions from Theresienstadt: those that somehow reflect the circumstances in which they were written and those that are pure music. Ullmann’s chamber opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (‘The Emperor of Atlantis’) is an example of the former while the quartet is a classical gem.

Ullmann’s third quartet is in four sections, but they run into each other to form a single-movement work that is fluid and concise. The searingly beautiful opening is scored for the four instruments in a mood of nostalgic melancholy which moves into a grotesque scherzo with the cello responding angrily and soothingly to what sound like taunts from the upper strings. Phrases are tossed from instrument to instrument and pizzicatos fly. Soothing the atmosphere, the lyrical melody of the opening returns but shifts towards a darker mood. This leads into the slow movement which begins with a chromatic note-row on the viola and then the cello building up a fugue-like texture. This is the emotional heart of the work and also has references back to the opening melody. The finale has a bold, assertive theme alternating with fast scurrying passages before returning to another variation of the opening music as a coda.

Viktor Ullmann was born in Tešín in Moravian-Silesia, but grew up in Vienna, where he studied with Schoenberg. In 1919 he moved to Prague and assisted Zemlinsky at the New German Opera. Before his time at Theresienstadt he composed two operas, a powerful piano concerto and chamber music. In the ghetto, as well as Der Kaiser von Atlantis and the String Quartet No 3, he composed songs and three piano sonatas (the last of these, his Piano Sonata No 7, was also intended as the short score for a projected symphony, later orchestrated by Bernhard Wulff).

Gideon Klein (1919–1945) was a young man of twenty-two when he arrived in Theresienstadt in December 1941, as one of the Aufbaukommando teams who had to prepare the town for tens of thousands of inhabitants. In his music Klein united the two prevalent musical trends in Czechoslovakia at the time—the Viennese chromaticism of Schoenberg and Berg, and the national, folk-based style of Janácek. The String Trio belongs to the latter world and is in a classical three-movement structure.

The opening Allegro is a rhythmic perpetuum mobile with a scurrying first figure and a slightly slower, folk-like theme over a drone accompaniment. The slow movement, a theme and variations, forms the heart of the work. The theme is an elegiac Moravian folksong called Ta Knezdubská vez (‘The Spire of Knezdub’) with a strong dotted rhythm which Klein uses as a motif in several of the variations. After the presentation of the ten-bar theme, there are eight variations of contrasting moods and textures. Closing a satisfyingly symmetrical work, the short Molto vivace finale returns to a rhythmic, folk-like character, but with a strong contemporary edge.

In Theresienstadt, Gideon Klein was a busy pianist, accompanying performances of Verdi’s Requiem, The Bartered Bride and Brundibár. His compositions included choral pieces, a Piano Sonata, a String Quartet and the String Trio, which he finished just nine days before his transport to Auschwitz. As a young man he passed through the selection process and was sent on to a smaller concentration camp, Fürstengrube near Katowice. He died there in January 1945.

Pavel Haas (1899–1944) was born in the Moravian capital Brno where he studied with Janácek, whose influence is clear in the String Quartet No 2. Like Janácek’s two quartets, Haas’s work, written in 1925, has a programmatic inspiration. Subtitled ‘From the Monkey Mountains’ (Czech: ‘Z opicích hor’), it was inspired by a summer trip into the Moravian highlands of that name. The first movement, Landscape, is mellow and lyrical, perhaps depicting blowing breezes, swirling grasses and vegetation. The second movement is a scherzo-like piece entitled Coach, Coachman and Horse. It suggests a rather rickety vehicle negotiating a very bumpy track with grinding chords, trills and glissandos, as if slipping in the mud. It ends with a good fast run, however. The third movement, The Moon and Me, is a soft moment of night-time contemplation. One pictures the composer as a sort of transfixed Pierrot gazing at a summer moon. The finale, Wild Night, has the air of a fiesta. Its opening is full of dramatic flourishes, fiery trills and then some good-time tunes, including a Latin American sounding rumba. Haas included an optional percussion part which emphasizes its links to the jazz bands he might have encountered in the 1920s.

Simon Broughton © 2013

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