The excellent British outfit The Nash Ensemble have released an important and superbly recorded new album of works by four Jewish Czech composers – Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullman, Hans Krása and Gideon Klein – who were all killed in Nazi concentration camps. They were part of the rich cultural life of the Theresienstadt ghetto, an old garrison from the Hapsburg Empire created as a way station for Jews being sent on to the death camps. Although the listener will be appalled by what happened to these four Czechs, all of whom were sent on to Auschwitz on the same transport, the music itself is curiously free of the poignancy and despair of their situation. As Ullman said of that time: “Theresienstadt has served to enhance, not 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 survive.”
Krása’s suite from his delightful children’s opera Brundibar (Bumblebee) is given its first performance here in David Matthews’ version for string quartet, piano, flute, clarinet, trumpet and percussion. Its mood varies between the magic of Ravel and sparkling humour of Poulenc. Ullman studied with Schoenberg and his Third String Quartet, impassioned and lyrical, owes a lot to the pre-atonal work of his mentor.
Haas, the best-known of the four, is also the only one directly linked to Janácek, having studied with him and modeled his Second Quartet, subtitled From The Monkey Mountains, on the older master’s programmatic works.
Perhaps the most poignant of the four stories is that of Klein, who was only 22 when he arrived at Theresienstadt to help prepare it for the 60,000 Jews who would live there. Although he survived Auschwitz, he was sent on to another concentration camp where he died in January 1945. One is left to wonder what this lost generation of successors to Smetana and Janácek might have produced had their lives not been cut short by the Nazis.