Sunday, 9 August 2009

Music from Theresienstadt - Holzmair Ullmann

Even in Theresienstadt (Terezin) , music thrived, against all odds. "Our will to create culture was as strong as our will to live" wrote Viktor Ullmann, the theosophist and composer. In the concentration camp, Ullmann wrote extensively, even producing an opera, the Emperor of Atlantis. Others, like Ilse Weber, wrote poems. "Ich wandle durch Theresienstadt", she writes. She stands on a bridge looking out on the valley. "Wann sind wir wieder frei"? Others articulated their thoughts only in abstraction. Karel Berman's Auschwitz - Corpse Factory describes in jagged piano what is too horrible to put in words.

Wolfgang Holzmair and Russell Ryan have just released a new recording, Spiritual Resistance : Music from Theresienstadt. (Click on link for more). There are many recordings of music from the camps. This new CD matches sincerity with artistic merit, so it is a must. Holzmair has long pioneered entartete Musik : his version of Hanns Eisler's Hollywood Liederbook was the finest version before Goerne came along. Holzmair's older now, but it gives his voice greater credence. Much as I've liked so many previous recordings, Holzmair's Der Müde Soldat is so good that it shows why this song means so much in the repertoire of music about war.

The poem on which Der Müde Soldat is based was written a thousand years ago in China but the sentiments still pack a punch. A soldier passes a girl, head shorn bare, who reminds him of the many others he's seen Reih' und Rieh', und Haupt und Haupt. He's seen too many burning villages. The eyes of children haunt him. He's müde von dem vielen Tod, and want to be a soldier no more.

This is perhaps the most famous song in this set, which contains all 12 songs of Der Mensch und sein Tag op 47 . These are short, but cryptic. They set poems written by Ullmann's close friend Hans-Günter Adler who collected Ullmann's effects when Ullmann was taken to Auschwitz in 1944. It's thanks to Adler we know so much of what happened in Theresienstadt, for he survived, and preserved as many of the hand-written manuscripts as he could.

Pavel Haas is famous for his string quartets - the Pavel Haas Quartet is named in his honour. Here we hear his Four songs after words of Chinese poetry. Hans Krása's Fünf Lieder reveal his more delicate style, quite different from Brundibár, the opera he wrote for the children of the camp. Listen to the Rilke setting Mach, dass etwas uns geschiet. Holzmair doesn't overload the fragile line wir wollen uns erheben wie ein Glanz, so it rises, like light.

Gideon Klein's songs are here, too, Three Songs, and his Lullaby, where a father speaks of "going into the furrows". Although the song is in Czech, one can't help but associate the feelings this song evokes with the circumstances in which it was written. Not a soothing lullaby.

Another reason for getting this CD is that it includes large portions of Karel Berman's Reminiscences. a long series of works wrtten from 1938 to 1945. They range from straightforward images of home to the quite unsettling Typhus in the Kauffering Concentration Camp. Its flickering, febrile notes are like halting breath. Berman was a singer, so perhaps it's significant that he chooses piano to express these images - photographs in sound, to bear witness without words. Russell Ryan, the pianist, Holzmair's long-time accompanist, plays thoughtfully. At times Berman's music breaks into vaguely effusive colour, but Rachnaminoff like flourish would not be appropriate. Ryan's sober approach works well. As Ullmann said "The deepest pain cannot become music".

Oddly enough, it's the pacifist Viktor Ullmann who comes up with explicit protest.. Der Schweizer is a savage blast at the Swiss Guards, who mutiny because the Pope won't pay them enough. "We'll auction off your Apostolic Throne!" It's a swipe at piety, at hypocrisy of all kinds, not solely Christian. Quite understandable in the circumstances.
IN June 2010 the Nash Ensemble and Holzmair will be doing a weekend at the Wigmore Hall on Theresienstadt music - do not miss !

No comments: