Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Out of the Shadows festival continued with the Nash Ensemble, in typically assured and sensitive vein, playing Music in the Terezin Ghetto at the Howard Assembly Room. All the four composers whose work at Terezin (Theresienstadt in German) was represented, died in 1944 or 1945 at Terezin or another camp.
So this is a tragic story; it is also an inspiring one. According to a propaganda film – which some sources claim was entitled The Fuhrer Gives a Village to the Jews – Terezin, a small garrison town in Bohemia, became an artistic paradise for the Jews of Czechoslovakia. This, of course, was a lie, but the small element of truth in it was that the Jewish community’s artistic achievements were remarkable, including a legacy of music, in particular, that recent years have taught us to appreciate. Two operas are now regularly performed: The Emperor of Atlantis by Viktor Ullman, written in Terezin, rehearsed, but never staged there, and Brundibar, a children’s opera by Hans Krasa, written slightly earlier, but has beenstaged many times in Terezin.
There is always the essential question with the music of Terezin: should you perform all of it because of the tragedy behind it or should you apply the same quality filter as for music composed in the peace of courts or conservatoires? The Nash Ensemble programme answered the question in the only possible way: this was as accomplished and impressive a set of chamber music pieces as you’d find anywhere in the 1940s. Another question was answered less completely. There is a school of thought that classical concerts would benefit from the performers talking about the works; given the circumstances of composition, this was one occasion when this would have been welcome.
The core of the programme consisted of string quartets and string trios. The most dramatic and the one that bore the heaviest weight of bitterness was Krasa’s terrific Passacaglia and Fugue for String Trio – surface chirpiness becoming increasingly manic, then moving to a sort of bruised lyricism. His Tanec (Dance) was almost equally powerful, the insistent railway rhythms having a significance to mid-European Jews of the time that we can hardly imagine.
The Nash Ensemble brought out movingly the lilting melancholy of the first movement of Viktor Ullmann’s String Quartet No. 3 and the haunting nostalgia of the Variations on a Moravian Folk Song in Gideon Klein’s String Trio, but it would be very unwise to see these as occasioned purely by a sense of loss – Ullmann’s final movement, Allegro vivace e ritmico, has a Shostakovich-like energy. And then we had Egon Ledec’s Gavotte for String Quartet, a charming little dance piece, shifting the melody wittily between the instruments, which cries out for plays on Classic FM.
To begin and end, the Nash Ensemble added clarinet, flute/piccolo, and piano and set about entertaining us. David Matthews’ reduction of The Bartered Bride overture kept much of the colour of Smetana’s original and justified its place here as a frequently played piece in Terezin and a reminder that Ullman, Krasa and the rest were as much Czechs as Jews. Finally, Krasa’s Brundibar appeared, in an instrumental suite again arranged by Matthews, with perky marches and slurpy waltzes, good fun and – given the circumstances of its early performances – all the more moving for that.
Out of the Shadows in Leeds and York until 23 June 2016 | Image: Contributed