Wednesday, October 9, 2019

A New Album of Music from the Holocaust

from the Web page for the recording being discussed

The Black Oak Ensemble is a string trio based in Chicago whose members have decidedly different backgrounds. Cellist David Cunliffe was born in Britain; and violist Aurélien Fort Pederzoli was French-born. Violinist Desirée Ruhstrat’s ancestry is divided between the United States and Switzerland. The trio formed in 2015 and has a concert schedule that covers much of Europe and, to a more limited extent, the United States.

This past summer saw the release of the group’s debut album, Silenced Voices. This is a collection of works by six composers whose careers were interrupted by the beginning of World War II. Only one of them survived, Géza Frid, born in Austria-Hungary in 1904 and resettled in Amsterdam in 1929. He was active in the Dutch resistance during the war and would then go on to teach chamber music at the Conservatory of Music in Utrecht. The other five were victims of the Nazis, either in camps or elsewhere. In order of appearance on this album, they are Dick Kattenburg, Sándor Kuti, Hans Krása, Gideon Klein, and Paul Hermann.

Two of those composers were familiar to me from past listening experiences. Both Krása and Klein were included on a 2013 album released on Hyperion by the Nash Ensemble entitled Brundibár. All four of the composers on the album had created works while interned at the Theresienstadt transit camp prior to transport to Auschwitz. The album title is the title of a children’s opera composed by Krása, represented by a suite of instrumental excerpts. The Klein selection is his string trio, which is also included on Silenced Voices.

Silenced Voices makes for particularly rewarding listening simply by virtue of the diversity of the compositions. All six of the composers had a solid command of technique but with markedly differing rhetorical perspectives. As might be guessed, nostalgia figures in many of the selections. The Frid composition reflects on Hungarian folk influences from his childhood, in spite of his move to Amsterdam. Krása, on the other hand, looks back to a much earlier time with a coupling of passacaglia and fugue movements that recalls Baroque tradition without trying to appropriate it. Krása also comes closest to program music with his brief “Tánec,” a depiction of the trains entering and leaving Theresienstadt.

It is unclear how aware the three Black Oak players were of the dark context that envelops all of the pieces they performed for this recording. On the other hand few members the generation that still has vivid memories of that context are still alive, and probably only a few of them make it to chamber music recitals these days. Nevertheless, even today’s listeners deserve to be reminded that much of this album is devoted to works created at Theresienstadt by composers that would then be shipped off to Auschwitz, from which there was no return.

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