Inspired by Mahler
MUSIC FROM WYASTONE – STUDIO CONCERT SERIES
Gustav Mahler Das irdische Leben (The Earthly Life)
– Soloist: April Fredrick (Soprano)
Mieczysław Weinberg Concertino for Violin and Strings
– Soloist: Zoë Beyers (Violin)
Erwin Schulhoff Suite for Chamber Orchestra
Viktor Ullmann arr. Woods Chamber Symphony op 46a (Third String Quartet)
English Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Kenneth Woods
Soprano: April Fredrick
Violin: Zoë Beyers
About this Concert
“I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.”
– Gustav Mahler
Despite being, as he described himself, “thrice homeless,” Gustav Mahler rose from humble origins to become the most powerful and celebrated conductor of his time, and one of the greatest composers of all time. By the time of his tragically early death in 1911, he had become an inspirational beacon for a new generation of outsider composers and performers. These composers would re-shape the world of music in the years after World War I.
About the Music - Gustav Mahler arr. Kenneth Woods - Das Irdische Leben (The Earthly Life)
This song from Mahler’s early cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) is a harrowing portrait of a childhood mired in poverty and starvation. It marks a radical departure in tone and subject matter from the Romantic traditions of love songs, idealised visions of childhood and the mythical adventures of gods and heroes.
Video - April Fredrick Introduces "The Earthly Life"
About the Music - Mieczsław Weinberg – Concertino for Violin and Strings
The youngest composer in tonight’s programme, Weinberg (1919-1996) fled his native Poland in the early months of the Holocaust. Arriving as a refugee in the Soviet Union, he was the only member of his family to survive, later writing “If I consider myself marked out by the preservation of my life, then that gives me a kind of feeling that it is impossible to repay the bet, that no 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week creative hard labour would take me even an inch towards paying it off.” Weinberg’s tireless efforts would make him one of the most prolific symphonists of all time, surpassing the eleven by Mahler and the fifteen by his friend and mentor, Shostakovich. Like Mahler, Weinberg found a wealth of inspiration in the folk music’s of Eastern Europe, and his Concertino was withrdrawn following the notorious 1948 Soviet Composers’ Union Congress in which he was warned of excessive “cosmopolitanism”, Stalin-speak for being “too Jewish.” There is no record of this lyrical and beautiful work being performed in Weinberg’s lifetime, and it was only published in 2009.
Learn more about Mieczsław Weinberg at the OREL Foundation website here.
Video - Soloist Zoë Beyers on Playing Weinberg's Concertino for Violin and Strings
About the Music - Erwin Schulhoff – Suite for Chamber Orchestra
Like Mahler, Schulhoff (1894-1942) was born in the Czech Republic to a German-speaking Jewish family. His precocious musical gifts led his mother to introduce him to Antonín Dvořák, who helped facilitate Schulhoff’s studies as a boy. As a student, he was fascinated by the music of Debussy, with whom he briefly studied, and Richard Strauss, and would later experiment with the atonal innovations of Mahler’s friend and acolyte, Arnold Schoenberg. In the end, however, Mahler’s integration of vernacular music into classical genres would have the most profound influence on Schulhoff’s most important works. Where Mahler found inspiration in the march, the waltz and the Ländler, Schulhoff turned to the shimmy, the tango and the ragtime.
Learn more about Erwin Schulhoff at the OREL Foundation website here.
About the Music - Viktor Ullmann arr. Kenneth Woods – Chamber Symphony opus 46a (String Quartet No. 3)
Ullmann (1898-1944), like Mahler, came from a small town, in what was then Silesia, on what is now the border of Poland and the Czech Republic. The New York Times said of Ullmann that “: “Like such other assimilated German-speaking Czech Jews as Kafka and Mahler, Ullmann lived a life of multiple estrangements.” He studied with Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, but his life took a tragic turn when he was arrested by the Nazi’s and deported to the camp at Terezin. Like his fellow composers Hans Krása, Gideon Klein and Pavel Haas, his musical activity only increased in spite of the miserable conditions, culminating in his darkly satirical opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, or Death Takes a Holiday. His Third String Quartet was one of many of his works kept safe and smuggled out of Terizn following his deportation to Auschwitz, where Ullmann, Haas and Krása were all killed on the 17th of October, 1944.
“All that I would stress is that Theresienstadt has helped, not hindered, me in my musical work, that we certainly did not sit down by the waters of Babylon and weep, and that our desire for culture was matched by our desire for life; and I am convinced that all those who have striven, in life and in art, to wrest form from resistant matter will bear me out.’
~ Viktor Ullmann, 1944
Learn more about Viktor Ullmann at the OREL Foundation website here.
Go deeper - Explore the Score of Ullmann's Chamber Symphony with Kenneth Woods
The piece is very close to my heart- I learned it from my chamber music coach and mentor, Henry Meyer, to whom I’ve dedicated the arrangement. It will be quite a feeling to sit back and hear a great orchestra play it. Of course, the real reason I want to be there is to hear whatever terrible misprint we’ve let slip through in spite of all our late nights proofreading. Hopefully it will be something truly spectacular like the 2nd violins being written in bass clef for a page!
Meanwhile, here is the dedication page from the new score and the notes I wrote for the last performance in 2004.
Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) composed his Third String Quartet in the Terezin ghetto outside Prague. The work was completed onthe 23rd of January, 1943 — a holograph of the original manuscript survived the war.
“It must be emphasized that Theresienstadt has served to enhance, not to impede, my musical activities, that by no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon, and that our endeavour with respect to Arts was commensurate with our will to live. And I am convinced that all those who, in life and in art, were fighting to force form upon resisting matter, will agree with me.”
Ullmann was deported to Auschwitz on16 October 1944, in one of the last transports, where he died in the gas chamber.
COMPOSER’S NOTE ON THE STRUCTURE OF THE WORK
1. Exposition (the repeat should be observed)
2. Scherzo with Trio and abbreviated repeat
3. Development of the first subject
4.Largo(quasi fugue, with development of the secondary subject as an episode)
5. Rondo-Finale with Coda
I was introduced to Viktor Ullmann’s Third String Quartet while a student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music by my chamber music coach and mentor, Henry Meyer, the long-time second violinist of the La Salle String Quartet. Henry had been incredibly excited to learn of the work’s rediscovery, but by the time he was able to locate the score and parts, the La Salles, whose advocacy for the string quartets of the New Vienna School masters and the quartets of Zemlinsky would have made them ideal advocates for the Ullmann, had retired. “If I can’t play it, I would at least like to teach it,” he told us. We were deeply humbled and honoured by his suggestion. Henry knew all-too-well what Ullmann had faced in the camps. He himself had been interred in bothAuschwitz and Birkenau before escaping at the end of the War. I can remember coaching sessions on dazzling spring afternoons when Henry, always gregarious and witty when we worked together, would take off his jacket, exposing the serial number tattoo etched in his arm by the Nazis some fifty years earlier. The cognitive dissonance of those moments, in which shared joy in the exploration of a newly discovered masterpiece took place in the presence of visible reminders of historic horror, remains with me to this day.
I went on to perform the work often in my regular quartet, and to take it with me to many festivals. It remains a work I love to play. I began considering an arrangement of the piece for string orchestra almost as soon as I learned it. I had conducted Rudolf Barshai’s string orchestra transcriptions of Shostakovich’s Eighth and Tenth String Quartets, and Mahler’s adaptations of Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” and so I could easily imagine that the drama, violence and intensity of the Ullmann would work wonderfully with string orchestra. Likewise, Ullmann’s lyricism and coloristic genius come across equally as well in the expanded ensemble as in the original version.
Of course, the most creative aspect of such an arrangement is the creation of a double bass part. Mahler, for instance, was extremely discrete in where and how he used the double basses in his quartet transcriptions, but the art of the bass has come a long way since Mahler’s time. In making this arrangement, I was inspired by the capabilities of many of my bassist colleagues and friends, whose virtuosity concedes nothing to the finest violinists or pianists. This arrangement pre-supposes the bass player(s) will have an instrument capable of going down to a low C.
The arrangement was completed in 1999 and premiered by the Grande Ronde Symphony in February 2000.
Kenneth Woods, 2012
Viktor Ullmann- String Quartet No. 3
(arr. for string orchestra by Kenneth Woods)
Viktor Ullmann’s String Quartet no. 3 was completed on January 18, 1943, in the final part of a career that began with him acknowledged as one of the great hopes of German musical life, and ended in his murder at the hands of racist fanatics.
In his early career, he studied and apprenticed under Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, and his early works, especially his Schoenberg Variations op 3a (1926), attracted attention throughout Europe. A passionate humanitarian with a deep interest in literature, culture and philosophy, Ullmann took a partial hiatus from composition to study the anthroposophical philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. In 1932 he and his second wife bought a bookshop in Stuttgart where they traded primarily in books on philosophy and humanism. Only months after the purchase of the bookstore, Hitler seized power and the Ullmanns fled to Prague.
In 1933 he began work on his most significant piece to date, an opera that would eventually become “The Fall of the Antichrist,” a work he completed in 1935. This masterpiece would be the crowing achievement of his prewar years, and yet it was to be the events of WW II that would spur him on to his very greatest artistic accomplishments.
Ullmann was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto outsidePraguein 1942. He was one of a handful of extraordinary creative geniuses in the ghetto, including the composers Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa. Never a particularly prolific composer in his earlier years, Ullmann composed a stunning volume of work during the two years he was in Theresienstadt, including piano sonatas, chamber music and a second opera, “The Emperor of Atlantis.”
Just hours before being deported to Auschwitz on October 16, 1944 some friends convinced him to leave his compositions behind. It is believed Viktor Ullmann was murdered in the gas chamber at Auschwitz on October 18, 1944.
‘For me Theresienstadt has been, and remains, an education in form. Previously, when one did not feel the weight and pressure of material life, because modern conveniences – those wonders of civilization – had dispelled them, it was easy to create beautiful forms. Here where matter has to be overcome through form even in daily life, where everything of an artistic nature is the very antithesis of one’s environment – here, true mastery lies in seeing, with Schiller, that the secret of the art-work lies in the eradication of matter through form: which is presumably, indeed, the mission of man altogether, not only of aesthetic man but also of ethical man.
“All that I would stress is that Theresienstadt has helped, not hindered, me in my musical work, that we certainly did not sit down by the waters of Babylon and weep, and that our desire for culture was matched by our desire for life; and I am convinced that all those who have striven, in life and in art, to wrest form from resistant matter will bear me out.’
~ Viktor Ullmann, 1944
The Third Quartet can in many ways be seen as a culmination of Ullmann’s development as a composer. In it one finds an exemplary balance of rigor and passion, a compelling formal logic, and a wealth of beautiful melodic writing. In it, he has seamlessly integrated the poetic world of vernacular music, from the waltz to the march, with the rigor of serial technique and an inspired lyrical gift. Although the work unfolds in a single musical span, its structure can easily be divided into a traditional four-movement structure where each of the four movements is linked by sophisticated motivic inter-relations.
The first movement, Allegro moderato is primarily lyrical in character and full of wonderfully luxurious harmonic writing, lightened at one point by a wonderfully waltz-like melody. The second, Presto, is ferocious and violent in much the same way as the second movement of Shostakovich’s famous Eighth Quartet. If the first movement has introduced the protagonists of our story, then the second has brought us music fit for the vilest villains. The before the third movement begins Ullmann brings back a passionate and despairing reminiscence of the first movement- what was nostalgia in the first movement is now transformed into genuine despair. The third movement, Largo, is truly the work’s heart of darkness, beginning with a fugue of desolate and unrelenting intensity. The waltz theme of the first movement here returns full of sadness.
Like the Presto before it, the character of the Rondo Finale is overwhelmingly antagonistic, violent and often terrifying, and is built from a horrific manipulation of the theme of the first movement. However, just when all is despair, Ullmann brings back the music of the first movement in the shape we first encountered it, but nostalgia replaced by defiance and regret replaced by passion. A voice of passionate defiance from within the walls of the concentration camp at midnight of humanity’s darkest hour? If ever any person wrote truly courageous music, it was surely Ullmann and this is surely that music.
c. 2004 by Kenneth Woods
Suppressed Music and the English Symphony Orchestra
Ever since March 2013, when Kenneth Woods chose to open his very first concert as a guest conductor with the English Symphony Orchestra with Viktor Ullmann’s Chamber Symphony, the ESO has been recognised as a UK and international leader in the advocacy for, and performance of, music of the generation of composers whose music was suppressed by the Nazi’s. While there are compelling humanitarian and historical reasons for performing this repertoire, the most important reason it features so prominently in our work is that we think it is fantastic music that everyone deserves the opportunity to hear.
With this in mind, this is music that we think belongs on concert programmes year-round, not only on solemn occasions. It is music that can and should be heard not only as Suppressed Music, but simply as Great Music.
Hans Gál escaped Nazi oppression in Mainz and Vienna, eventually fleeing to the UK. After the outbreak of World War II, he was arrested as an ‘enemy alien’ and interned in two detention centres. His memoir of this experience, Music Behind Barbed Wire, is a powerful window into the experience of Jewish refugees at the hands of their adopted homeland. Following his release, Gál settled permanently in Edinburgh, where he helped found the Edinburgh Festival and bring leading conductors and performers to the City. He was also a much-loved teacher at Edinburgh University. Given Kenneth Woods’ long association with Gál’s music, it is no surprise that his works have featured regularly on ESO concerts. Our world premiere recording of his Concertino for Cello and Strings with cellist Matthew Sharp was a MusicWeb Recording of the Year in 2017.
Mieczysław Weinberg’s music is appearing on an ESO programme for the first time in tonight’s concert, following two previous postponements and cancellations due to Covid. Weinberg fled the Nazi invasion of Poland for Russia. He was the only member of his family to survive (his immediate family were burned alive). Following the invasion of Russia, Weinberg found himself in inner exile in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, over 2000 miles from Moscow. It was Dmitri Shostakovich who arranged for Weinberg to come to Moscow, where he would settle permanently in 1943. Shostakovich and Weinberg became close friends. Weinberg continued to suffer from anti-Semitic oppression, including being denounced for “cosmopolitanism (ie Jewishness) and formalism” by Andrei Zhdanov — Stalin’s deputy with responsibilities for “ideology, culture and science” – at the 1948 Composers Congress. Later, he was arrested in January 1953 and charged with conspiring to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea — a concoction that although absurd, was still accompanied by a death sentence. It was only through the combination of Shostakovich’s continued advocacy for his freedom and the death of Stalin in March 1953 that Weinberg was again freed.
Ernst Krenek was forced into exile and his music banned even though he was not Jewish. This was largely due to the success of his opera Jonny spielt auf (Jonny Plays On), which featured a black leading character and music inspired by jazz. We recently performed his Fantasie on themes from Jonny as part of our New Year’s concert, which ESO Digital members can see here. Over two years, we made the first complete recording of the piano concertos of Ernst Krenek with soloist Mikhail Korzhev. Those recordings were produced by Michael Haas, the producer of Decca Records groundbreaking series Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music), which first began to bring the music of this generation of composers into the mainstream. Michael now serves as Director of exil.arte Center for Banned Music, the leading Austrian research centre, archive and exhibition venue for music of this time. Volume One of the Krenek Piano Concertos (including Concertos 1-3) was a Sunday Times “Best Recording” of 2016, and Volume Two (Piano Concerto No. 4, Concerto for Two Pianos, Double Concerto for Violin and Piano and Little Concerto for Organ and Piano) was one of Forbes Magazine’s Top 11 Recordings of 2017.
Vítĕzslava Kaprálová fled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia for France, where she died in exile at the age of 25. During her time in France, she studied composer Bohuslav Martinů, and the two eventually became lovers. It is not hyperbole to say the Kaprálová was one of the most gifted musicians of any gender to emerge in the 20th C. In her short life, she composed over fifty remarkable works, and built a ground-breaking career as a conductor of international stature long before the presence of women on the podium was considered widely acceptable. We were incredibly excited to perform her Partita for Piano and Strings with Noriko Ogawa in both Hereford Shirehall and at Kings Place as part of their Venus Unwrapped series celebrating women in music (learn more here and here). This project was recognised with an ABO Sirens aware for outstanding support of the music of historic women composers.
Bohuslav Martinů spent the last two decades of his life in exile, moving between France, America, Italy and Switzerland, all the while generating an astounding musical output as a composer. Despite being one of the more well-known figures in this list, Martinů’s enormous body of work means that there are still many gems in his catalogue that remain largely forgotten. We were most excited to discover his glorious Partita for Strings, which we performed alongside the Partita by his beloved Kaprálová in concerts in Hereford and Kings Place. Given that the ESO was founded as a string orchestra, it’s remarkable that such a tremendous work by a major figure didn’t come into our repertoire for 38 years.
In addition to Viktor Ullmann and Erwin Schulhoff, we’d like to encourage you all to explore the music of the many other important composers of this generation. There are literally thousands of works out there by dozens of composers, waiting to be played and heard again. For our part, the only thing limiting our ambition to champion this music is funding and opportunity. If the music on tonight’s programme has touched you, please think about what you can do to help make future concerts possible. This might include writing to broadcasters, presenters, festivals or funders, or making a donation or sponsoring an event. Even modest efforts can make a huge difference.
Seen and Heard International - 27th January 2021
The English Symphony Orchestra’s first streamed concert of 2021 was designed to mark International Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January. It should be said, though, that the chosen music was not by any means tragic in hue. Rather, this programme celebrated composers who were persecuted as Jews but who nonetheless left us remarkable music, not all of which reflected the tribulations of their personal lives. The programme bore the title Inspired by Mahler, reflecting the fact that Mahler was an influence on the other three featured composers.
Fittingly, then, we began with Mahler and his Knaben Wunderhorn song ‘Das irdische Leben’. This performance by April Fredrick was, in fact, a reprise of the performance given in the ESO’s Visions of Childhood concert last year (review). I was delighted to see and hear this committed, wholehearted rendition again. Incidentally, that Visions of Childhood programme is to be released imminently as an audio CD by Nimbus (NI 6408) and the disc will also include Ms Fredrick’s excellent account of Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder in the very successful chamber arrangement by James Ledger (review).
Next up was the Concertino for Violin and Strings by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). Weinberg escaped the Holocaust by the skin of his teeth, fleeing from his native Poland to the Soviet Union; the rest of his family stayed behind and perished. Once he had reached the Soviet Union, Weinberg became a lifelong friend of Shostakovich, but in Stalin’s state he was not safe from oppression; he was one of a number of fine composers denounced at the infamous Composers’ Union Congress of 1948. This particular concertino was composed in that very year but Weinberg withdrew it, unperformed, and indeed there is no record that it was ever played in his lifetime: it remained unpublished until 2009. In this concert the ESO’s leader Zoë Beyers was the soloist, accompanied by about twenty string players, all suitably socially distanced, of course.
When you hear the work – and especially when you hear it in a performance like this – it seems utterly crazy that Weinberg should have felt unable to let this accessible music see the light of day. What an indictment of ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin’s ‘Workers’ Paradise’! The concertino is engaging from start to finish and Ms Beyers proved an ideal soloist. The first of its three movements is marked Allegretto cantabile and for most of its duration the music is indeed ‘cantabile’ in nature. Immediately, we hear a lyrical melody from the solo violin which is both lovely and expansive; from this theme the whole movement derives. Zoë Beyers gave a highly persuasive account of this movement, in which the soloist rarely rests; her marvellously singing tone and flawless intonation was ideally suited to this music. A short but impassioned and rhetorical cadenza links the first two movements: Ms Beyers seized what is about the only opportunity for virtuoso display in the whole work. The following Lento received a deeply felt performance. Here again Weinberg places much of the focus on the cantabile aspect of the solo instrument. I greatly admired Zoë Beyers’ performance and her evident commitment to the music.
The finale is, essentially, a graceful rondo-waltz. With the exception of one strong orchestral passage Weinberg continues to play up the lyrical side of the violin. Only in the last minute or so does he pick up the pace, bringing the concertino to a very definite and positive conclusion. This was a winning performance of Weinberg’s Concertino. Zoë Beyers was a terrific soloist and she received wholehearted support from her colleagues in the ESO string section
I think I’m right in saying that the performance of Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra was first aired in a ‘Roaring 20s’ programme which the ESO streamed last New Year’s Eve. I missed that concert so I was glad to catch up with this piece now, all the more so since it fitted so well into this present concert. Schulhoff (1894-1942) composed this six-movement suite in 1921. On this occasion we heard it with a reduced number of players in order that social distancing might be observed: I counted five string players, six woodwinds, two horns, one trumpet, harp and 4 percussionists. The suite demonstrates Schulhoff’s propensity for integrating popular musical vernacular into his music: as the programme notes for this concert expressed it ‘Where Mahler found inspiration in the march, the waltz and the Ländler, Schulhoff turned to the shimmy, the tango and the ragtime’. The deployment of small, lean forces for this performance demanded pin-point accuracy from the musicians and that’s just what they served up.
The opening ‘Ragtime’ was pithy and jazzy. The ‘Boston Waltz’ that followed is slow and delicate music; I relished the performance which was given with considerable finesse. In the sultry ‘Tango’ there was a great deal of idiomatic solo work on display, especially from the first violinist. ‘Shimmy’ was bright and breezy with lots of piquant scoring to admire – in the percussion section whoever was playing the Swanee Whistle had a great time! ‘Step’ is a short and unusual movement. It’s march-like and scored exclusively for the percussion section; the four ESO players had a field day. The full ensemble was involved in the concluding ‘Jazz’. This provided a colourful and very lively conclusion to a highly entertaining performance.
Like Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) was a victim of the Holocaust. A pupil of Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, he was first interned in Terezin (Theresienstadt) and subsequently in Auschwitz where he was murdered. I learned from the programme notes that Ullmann met his end in Auschwitz on the same day, 17 October 1944, as two other composers, Hans Krása, and Pavel Haas. Amazingly, despite all the horrors of incarceration, Ullmann continued to compose in the camps. His Third String Quartet, Op 46 was one such work which he wrote in Terezin; the score was subsequently smuggled out of the camp. In this concert we heard it in a string orchestra arrangement by Kenneth Woods which was played by an ensemble of a similar size to that which was used for the Weinberg Concertino.
Ullmann’s Quartet is a single-movement work which divides into four sections which are played without a break: Allegro moderato – Presto – Largo – Allegro vivace e ritmico. In the gently melancholic Allegro moderato both the melodic and harmonic language seemed to me to have quite an affinity with Mahler’s tone of voice in his Ninth and Tenth symphonies. The use of a body of strings rather than just four instruments imparted a richness which the music could certainly bear. Into this sound world the eruption of the urgent and bitter Presto came as a shock. This assertive episode was strongly projected by the ESO. The music moved into the Largo, re-establishing the mood in which the work opened, though the atmosphere darkened somewhat as the section unfolded. Once again, I thought this music especially well suited to the string orchestra medium. Finally, the Allegro vivace e ritmico brought the work to a lively close. The members of the ESO played this music extremely well and I thought the arrangement for a string band was a complete success.
This was a stimulating concert. The Weinberg was the highlight for me but all the other pieces – and performances – were excellent. Under the guiding hand of Kenneth Woods, the English Symphony Orchestra played with skill and commitment and the well-constructed programme gave us the opportunity to hear them in a good range of music. This programme is a discerning way to mark International Holocaust Memorial Day. Mahler, though he died too young, left us a large corpus of masterpieces which have a secure place in the repertoire. In the last twenty years or so we’ve been able to appreciate much more widely the large output of Mieczysław Weinberg. With Erwin Schulhoff and Viktor Ullmann, we can only wonder what more they might have achieved had not their lives and talents been cruelly destroyed by the Nazis; happily, we have at least some music by which to remember them.
Arcana.fm - 28th January 2021
The Holocaust Memorial Day is a timely opportunity to hear music anticipatory of, inspired by or stemming from events that have defaced human history on all too many occasions, and which provided the basis for this latest online concert from the English Symphony Orchestra.
The underlying tone for this programme was set by Mahler, with one of his settings of texts from the folk collection Des knaben Wunderhorn. In pivoting between the child’s supplication and his mother’s entreaties, over the fateful strains of a ceaseless ‘treadmill’ accompaniment, The Earthly Life is one of the composer’s most evocative songs – not least its portrayal of the child’s existence running out as though this were grains of sand. April Frederick accordingly invested the vocal part with just the right combination of ominous dread and lingering pathos.
ESO leader Zoë Beyers then took centre-stage for Weinberg‘s Violin Concertino, the product of late-1940s Soviet culture when accessibility was not just desired but prescribed. Modest in expressive scope next to those chamber works that preceded it, this work is highly appealing – not least in the deftness and subtlety with which the composer unfolds his ideas across an ingratiating Allegretto, ruminative Adagio (whose cadenza-like introduction brings the most arresting music in the whole work), then a final Allegro whose thematic interplay is nothing if not resourceful. Beyers rendered it with unfailing eloquence, making it clear just why this attractive piece – which had to wait almost half a century for a first public hearing – should now have established itself among the most often performed of Weinberg’s orchestral works.
In telling contrast, Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra was a pert reminder of the composer’s usage of jazz as part of a lifelong and tragically curtailed stylistic odyssey. While the faster numbers recall the wit of Poulenc’s earlier chamber music and irony of Stravinsky’s suites for theatre orchestra, the Valse Boston (its soulful violin solos hauntingly rendered by David Juritz) and Tango admit of a searching introspection to the fore in those works from Schulhoff’s last years. Qualities which are pointedly side-lined by the uproarious final Jazz.
The final work provided the culmination in every respect. Written during internment at the transit camp of Terezin (aka Theresienstadt), the Third String Quartet is Viktor Ullmann’s likely instrumental masterpiece – in terms both of its formal unity and expressive diversity – and whose transcription onto the larger canvas has been persuasively achieved by Kenneth Woods. Chamber Symphony makes a not inappropriate title, this single span drawing the contrasted movements into a seamless and finely-balanced whole – the initial theme acting as a soulful refrain between the angular scherzo with its waltz-like undertow then, after the terse development, a fugal Largo whose accrued intensity carries over into the final Rondo with its striving towards a fervent restatement of the ultimately transfigured ‘motto’ theme’.
An imposing work, given a committed reading by this orchestra under its arranger in what was an appropriate tribute for the day. The ESO’s online series is scheduled to continue on the 26th of February, with a portrait concert of the American composer Steven R. Gerber.
Midlands Music Reviews - 28th January 2021
“Inspired by Mahler” was the apt title for this English Symphony Orchestra programme marking Holocaust Memorial Day. Mahler considered himself a triple outsider, not least because of his Jewishness, and though he himself prospered as a composer and conductor (undoubtedly the first transatlantic superstar of the podium), the other composers in this streamed concert suffered, some indeed perishing in Nazi concentration camps. It is quite a thought to reflect that had not heart disease brought about his early death, Mahler himself might have been one of those victims.
Kenneth Woods conducted a sequence of works which was both shrewd and loving, beginning with Das Irdische Leben by Mahler himself. Like Schubert’s Erl King, this is a song depicting a child’s journey to death, and April Fredrick was the gripping soloist. Her soprano voice here displayed a warm mezzo timbre, and continues to grow in authority.
Thanks in good part to Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla’s advocacy with the CBSO, Miecyslaw Weinberg is the composer of the moment, and his Concertino for Violin and Strings proved a wonderful find. Its opening melody is as gorgeous as that of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, there is an equally gorgeous slow movement, and the finale is a bittersweet waltz. There is something of a Jewish melancholy throughout the work which also characterises the Finzi Clarinet Concerto.
Zoe Beyers was the persuasive, virtually ever-present soloist, Woods’ ESO collaborating with empathy.
We moved into a nightclub scenario for Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra, some lady players sporting fascinators, and the lighting suitably atmospheric for this dada-ist work citing louche dance rhythms. Satie’s Parade came to mind, which was perhaps an unfair comparison, but this Suite often outlives its welcome. The performance, however, was straight-faced and delicate, and the fourth movement percussion cameo was a miracle of precision.
Woods’ own arrangement of Viktor Ullmann’s String Quartet no.3, now renamed Chamber Symphony, brought us music which was often meltingly-textured but also rhythmically incisive. There were some wonderful solo contributions from the principal cellist, but without a printed programme one doesn’t know who to credit.
And it will be so good when we no longer have to note that there was immaculate social distancing between the players. Desk-partnership is sich an important element in orchestral performance.
Adventures in Music - 31st January 2021
In their latest episode of studio concert series, the marvellous English Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor Kenneth Woods focus on twentieth century works inspired by Gustav Mahler.
The three main works featured on the episode were written by composers whose fates became entangled with the Holocaust. Two of them, Erwin Schulhoff and Viktor Ullmann were murdered in Auschwitz, whereas Mieczsław Weinberg managed to escape his native Poland in the early months of the Holocaust, ending up in Soviet Union and facing the hardships of the Stalin regime.
The programme opens with Mahler’s Das irdische Leben from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-1901), in Woods’s a spot-on reduction for voice and chamber orchestra. Grippingly sung by soprano April Fredrick, Mahler’s bleak portrayal of a child starving to death was a forceful meditation, pre-echoing the disasters of the 20th century.
In our contemporary pandemic context, it is hard not to hear Das irdische Leben as an allegory of the performing arts, globally starving under the restrictions.
Mieczsław Weinberg’s three-movement, folk-rooted Concertino for Violin and Strings, Op. 42 (1948) is an instant charmer, due to its incessant melodic flow, overt lyricism and enchanting harmonies. Despite its lovely appeal, Concertino fell under the shadow of the anti-formalist (and anti-Semitic) campaign of the Soviet Composer’s Union Congress, and remained unperformed in the composer’s lifetime.
The Allegretto cantabile first movement is based on a theme derived from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 (1944). The uplifting opening movement unravels in the most natural manner, spellbindingly performed by the ESO leader Zoë Beyers, with Woods and the strings providing spirited accompaniment.
A lyrical oasis, the second movement opens with a cadenza, leading to the adagio section for full ensemble. The allegro moderato poco rubato finale follows attacca, providing the Concertino with a brilliant closing, wonderfully performed by Beyers, the ESO and Woods.
Erwin Schulhoff’ssix-movement Suite for Chamber Orchestra (1921) was first performed in Berlin in April 1922 by the musicians of the Staatsoper. Conceived in the manner of a baroque suite, Schulhoff’s score is built upon dance idioms of the era, as manifested in the matter-of-factly titles of the six movements; Ragtime, Valse Boston, Tango, Shimmy, Step and Jazz.
Schulhoff’s suite is, quite simply, an outrageously brilliant score. Scored for a salon-type ensemble of solo strings and winds, joined by two horns, trumpet, harp and no less than four percussionists playing twelve instruments, the twenty-minute suite is a feast of delicious tunes, sparkling colours and upbeat rhythms.
Out of his jazz materials, Schulhoff crafts a score of astounding invention, wholeheartedly endorsed by the wonderful ESO performance with Woods, first released as a part of their New Year’s concert.
Be it the riveting drive of the opening Rag or those splendidly nocturnal, moonlit textures of Boston, let alone the gorgeous Tango, Woods and the ESO musicians are ever attuned to the surreal beauty of the score, providing their online audiences with a wondrously dreamy take of the score.
The sheer joy of music-making is tangible in the superb Shimmy, followed by a percussion tour-de-force of Step. The whole ensemble is united again in the closing movement, a spirited Jazz, performed with vigor by Woods and the ESO.
The programme closes with Viktor Ullmann’s String Quartet No. 3 (1943), in Woods’s orchestration for larger string ensemble, under the title of Chamber Symphony. Written in Theresienstadt, the four-movement quartet contains a dazzling musical universe, condensed in fifteen minutes.
The music opens with an allegro moderato, rooted in agorgeous valse appeal, clad in riveting harmonies. The mood changes drastically in the presto second movement. Its vehement, almost brutal soundscapes have a shattering effect on the listener.
The impressive largo slow movement gazes into a wasteland. Woven into fugal textures, the deeply moving sonic tableau builds up to an instrumental requiem of tangible intensity.
Closing with a rondo-finale, the quartet’s musical tensions are turned into a nightmarish sequence, before resolving into the reappearance of the material from the opening movement.
A compelling masterpiece, Ullmann’s Third Quartet lends itself quite naturally to the extended sonorities of a string orchestra. Woods’s orchestration does not draw attention to itself. Rather, it serves the composer’s original quite idiomatically, especially in a committed, top-class performance as the one recorded here.
Another case in point of splendid programming, the ESO and Woods Inspired by Mahler programme is a wholehearted salute to the multi-faceted brilliance of the twentieth century music, and to the composers perished in the atrocities of a world bereft of humanity. In memoriam.
Planet Hugill - 31st January 2021
Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra have been continuing their series of recitals from Wyastone Studios, this time it was under the title of Inspired by Mahler. Starting with Woods’ chamber version of Mahler’s Das irdische Leben (with soprano April Fredrick), the programme then explored later composers under Mahler’s influence with Mieczysław Weinberg’s remarkably neo-classical Concertino for Violin and Strings and Erwin Schulhoff’s wonderfully lively Suite for Chamber Orchestra with its movements based on popular dances, ending with Woods’ chamber orchestra version of Viktor Ullman’s Third String Quartet, a serious and intense ending to an imaginative concert.
Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, on 13th July 2020 (Weinberg), 27th July 2020 (Mahler), 23rd September 2020 (Ullmann) & 9th November 2020 (Schulhoff)