This past weekend Wigmore Hall presented an extraordinary two days of music, entitled 'Theresienstadt-Terezin, 1941-45', in association with Amelia Freedman and her Nash Ensemble.
The small garrison town, Theresienstadt in German and Terezin in Czech, lies 60 km north from Prague and was built by Emperor Joseph II for about 6000 people. But in 1941 the Nazis turned Terezin into a ghetto for Jews and crammed in up to 60000 people at any given time. Among them there were many composers and professional musicians (as well as actors, painters and other artists). In spite of unimaginably dreadful human conditions, cultural life spontaneously emerged first in secret but later with permission by the Nazis who recognised the propaganda value of these cultural activities. By mid-October 1944 Terezin's artists were transported to concentration camps where most of them were killed. Indeed; from the 140000 people who were first taken to Terezin, only 20000 survived.
Wigmore Hall's Terezin weekend celebrated those extraordinary artists, whose will to create have overcome the horrors of reality. Film screenings, talks by survivors, concerts and an exhibition of drawings allowed an insight into the inspired and inspirational cultural life of Terezin.
The celebration started with Simon Broughton's 1992 documentary film, The Music of Terezin, on Saturday afternoon. I have seen this film more than ten times but, as so often with masterpieces in any artistic genre, I always find something new in it. Broughton takes us on a journey – the train ride at the beginning of the film may refer to those transported to Terezin but it is also the beginning of our journey – and, through interviews with survivors and through performances of music written in Terezin, we are shown creativity of the highest standard in the shadow of death. We learn about the relatively well known four 'Terezin composers' – Haas, Krása, Ullman and Klein – but also about several others. Pianists Alice Sommer Herz and Edit Kraus, singer Karel Berman, actress Zdenka Fantlová, artist Helga Weissova-Hosková and writer Ivan Klima give moving but unsentimental accounts of their experiences. Indeed, Broughton's film is deeply moving but it does not impose on the audience.
After the film's screening Broughton interviewed Terezin survivor Zdenka Fantlová (a beautiful, energetic 89 year old lady) and Helga Weissova-Hosková (young and spirited at the age of 82) on Wigmore Hall's stage. The dialogue, skilfully guided by Broughton between these ladies and the audience, added further dimensions to our understanding of the film. And Zdenka Fantlová’s spontaneous and highly musical performance of the exit song from Esther, composed by Karel Reiner (who studied with Alois Haba) was, for me, the musical highlight of the week-end.
Saturday evening's concert opened with 'Song without words for string quartet' by František Domažlický, the only composer on the programme who survived Terezin. First violinist Marianne Thorsen employed well-chosen, expressive tonal colours and phrasing. The four songs by Ilse Weber are partly in folksong style while 'Heimweh' (Homesickness) by Adolf Strauss is a heartfelt melody. Carlo Sigmund Taube's 'Ein Jüdisches Kind' (A Jewish Child) reminds of some Hebraic chant but with operatic flourishes. Zigmund Schul's 'Die Nischt-gewesenen' (What never was), composed before Terezin in 1937, shows the direction which this student of Hindemith and Haba might have taken. The Three Songs Op. 37 by Viktor Ullmann was revised in Terezin. Perhaps originally it was intended for orchestra as the piano accompaniment is grand and orchestral. The second song strongly reminds of The Emperor of Atlantis, Ullmann's astonishing opera written, rehearsed but—owing to the Nazis’ ban—not performed in Terezin. Cabaret and operetta-style songs by Karel Švenk ('Terezin March'), Adolf Strauss ('I am sure I will see you again') and Otto Skutečky ('Down in the Prater') have a bitter-sweet taste in retrospect.
Baritone Wolfgang Holzmar, accompanied by pianist Russell Ryan, performed all songs with obvious dedication, clear diction and the ability to tell a story in each and every song. To my ears, some of his top notes did not quite make it to the top and the piano did not seem to be as well tuned as usual. I also wished Holzmar would not keep looking down to his music quite so much. However, his performances were of high standard and to be cherished.
Members of the Nash Ensemble gave a polished and highly spirited account of Gideon Klein's String Trio. Polyphony was clearly transparent in the first movement, in the second movement they produced some magical pianissimos as well as virtuoso pizzicato passages, and the third movement was refreshingly dance-like with strong rhythms. Hans Krása's Passacaglia and Fuga for string trio as well as his one-movement Tanec for string trio received dedicated performances by the Nash Ensemble's string trio. They started the passacaglia in true baroque style, changed style when the composer did so and finished the virtuoso fuga with the sense of humour which the composer probably intended. (I had no score to compare my reading with that of the Nash players.)
Sunday afternoon started with members of the Nash Ensemble performing Janáček's String Quartet No. 1 ('Kreutzer Sonata') and Pavel Haas' String Quartet No. 2, Op.7 ('From the Monkey Mountains'). Haas was a student of Janáček, and his second quartet, composed in 1925, might have been inspired by Janáček's first excursion into the genre (1923). However, Haas said that he was inspired to compose his quartet while on a summer trip to the Monkey Mountains in Moravia. He made two versions, the second added percussion to the quartet of string players. We heard the latter version during this concert. The percussion plays only in the fourth movement – 'Wild Night' – which is pure jazzy fun. I was not sure why the Nash quartet opted for an uneven rhythm in the opening theme of Janáček's work, or why they accented every quaver note of the opening of a 4/8 motive. At times they rushed (without any suggestion for it in the score) but the viola's declamation in the final Adagio was majestic and the second violin concluded the composition with utmost musicality.
The Janáček/Haas concert was followed by the screening of Brundibár, Hans Krása's thirty-minute opera written to be performed by children. There is no adult role at all. The opera was a great hit in Terezin, it was performed 55 times. The Nazis filmed one of the performances for their propaganda film in 1944. Very few of the performers survived the Holocaust, but the little girl taking one of the lead parts, the role of Aninka, did. She, Greta Hofmeister-Klinsberg, was at the Wigmore Hall and was interviewed by Simon Broughton after the screening. What an amazing insight she offered to us! We saw an English version, directed by John Abulafia and performed by the New London Children's Choir. I understand Abulafia's concept – as he explained to Simon Broughton and to us, he loved the colour of the score and therefore wanted to make a colourful production – but I felt uncomfortable with the result. Most of the London children seemed too old for their parts and the production reminded me of a pantomime. Yet Brundibár is about the struggle between good and evil, the children and animals representing goodness and Brundibár the evil.
The final concert of this Terezin week-end was possibly too generous. The logic was clear, educational and honourable, but it was perhaps over the top. Smetana's The Bartered Bride was a hugely appreciated and often performed piece in Terezin. This concert opened with the world premiere of David Matthew's arrangement of the overture for the Nash Ensemble. Hats off to the solo second violinist who carried off the difficult motor-like super fast semiquaver passage, the notes of which many second violin sections in opera houses most probably share among themselves (although, of course, unofficially). But I, for one, would have not minded giving this version a miss. Same goes for the UK premier of the Brundibár Suite (arranged by Petr Pokorný, 1995), mainly on account of the rather rough performance. The players sounded as if they did not care (although I am sure they did).
Viktor Ullmann's piano Sonata No. 6, Op. 49 received a skilled but somewhat cerebral performance by Ian Brown who played from music (and had the services of a page turner). It was hard to tell how familiar Brown was with the music. During most of Hans Krása’s Three Songs for baritone, clarinet, viola and cello I was wasting time by trying to read, in vain, the song texts in the rather dark hall, but I noticed some lovely clarinet playing and nice nuances by the viola player in these lovely songs. The four string players were not tuned together – at some untidy corners they were literally not together – in Josef Suk's Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale Saint Wenceslas. Apart from some excellent viola playing, they sounded orchestral and under rehearsed. Suk, Dvorak's son-in-law, was not in Terezin but the inclusion of the piece made musicological and historical sense.
Erwin Schulhoff's Duo for violin and cello was a revelation for the musical material of this four-movement masterpiece as well as for the outstanding performance by violinist Marianne Thorsen and cellist Paul Watkins. There were the odd mistuned chords, but the players delivered the virtuoso and inventive piece with great panache. Schulhoff never made it to Terezin. As a Communist, a Jew and a 'degenerate' composer, he was deported to Bavaria where he died in 1942.
The concert concluded with the UK premiere of Pavel Haas' Four Songs on Chinese Poetry, in an arrangement for voice and an ensemble of 14 players by Jan van Wilijmen. The Saint Wenceslas chorale is embedded in these beautiful songs, which I would have preferred to hear in their original voice/piano version. However, the more people know/perform such unjustly forgotten compositions, the more we counter balance past atrocities.
Simon Broughton's programme notes were extraordinary in terms of wealth of information and insight. And great care was taken for the actual production of this booklet. I will treasure it, and the memory of this week-end, for a long time to come.
P.S. Possibly the most moving moment of this Terezin weekend was not connected to music. In her interview with Simon Broughton, artist Helga Weissova-Hosková recalled in detail how, against all odds, a child was born on her death march from Terezin to the Mauthausen concentration camp. A lady from the audience called out: 'I was that child'. This was drama at its best, written by life.
By Agnes Kory
Photos: Image from Terezin, and the Nash Ensemble