Seen and Heard Recital Review
Szymon LAKS, Pavel HAAS, Viktor ULLMAN, Olivier MESSIAEN, Siegmund SCHUL, Jacqueline Cole (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 15th January, 2005 (AO)
“Since I was a member of the orchestra at Auschwitz…I regard it as my obligation to relate and in some way to commemorate this strange chapter in the history of music.” So wrote Szymon Laks (1901-1983) shortly after his liberation. This concert, titled “Homage to Szymon Laks”, showcases his music in the context of contemporaries, other musicians who despite the horrors of their situation, found in music some form of spiritual resistance. As an advisor at Yad Vashem says “We must not only remember them, which is a cheap and superficial cliché – we must learn from them.”
This intriguing programme was compiled by Jacqueline Cole, a specialist in the music of Viktor Ullman, perhaps the best known of composers who were caught up in the Holocaust. Laks was Polish and, like his hero, Chopin, made his career in France. The influence shows in his Homage à Chopin, written in 1949. Hints of Chopin surface continuously, encased in passages of theme development. Should you be seduced by the lyricism, the ending is abrupt, a scream in F sharp minor which shakes you out of complacency. It is as if Laks recalls the irony of his return to Poland, and can say no more. Sonata Brève, written in 1946, is a far starker piece, its three movements structurally coherent. It starts with baroque references but soon changes key and leaps into harsh modernity. The second movement is a brooding meditation of unadorned low notes, contrasting with the affirmative, dominant final conclusion.
Pavel Haas’s Suite Op. 13 evokes the world that existed before the war. It’s stylishly vigorous, in the Moravian tradition of Janacek, Haas’s teacher, full of quirky dance and jazz influences. Its full- throated melodies seem to celebrate life and movement, though the terse tango give and take cross rhythms and add expressionistic undertones of tension. Ironically, it was written for a pianist who was to die beside Haas in Auschwitz.
Far and away the most stunning piece of music this evening was Viktor Ullman’s Piano Sonata No. 7. This striking piece was written on scraps of paper in Theresienstadt, six weeks before his death. Dedicated to his children, it includes many personal musical references harking back to his career, a sort of memorial to his life. From the very first notes you know something special is happening, for the sprinkling, star like notes on one hand contrast with a deliberate funeral tread on the other. There is a short, minimalist middle where single notes reverberate into silence, very dignified and moving. It is contemplative yet deliberate. Every note counts, nothing is superfluous. The precision of the scoring in the final movement with its firm, dominant chords reflect what we know of Ullman’s powerful intellect and deep humanity. He was not a man to be cowed by evil. The melodic line is pure and unsullied, needing no adornment. Like an affirmation of spiritual hope, it rises higher and higher until it emanates into silence. The audience were shocked into silence, and then burst into heartfelt applause.
Jacqueline Cole trained with Yvonne and Jeanne Loriod, so a piece from Messiaen was appropriate. His Vingt Regards sur L’enfant Jesus, written in September 1944, are a contemplation of the mysteries of life and death, based on his own background. With the Ullman sonata still in my heart, I was contemplating the “correspondances”, in the French sense of the word, between the imagery of the “première communion de la Vierge” and Ullmann’s final fugue.
Cole herself finds “correspondences” between Messiaen’s “Par lui tout a été fait” and the fragment remaining of Siegmund Schul’s sonata. Schul’s fragment makes one wonder what the whole might have been, for its purity of spirit is quite uplifting although it was written shortly before the composer was transported. Again, Viktor Ullman’s perceptions inspire. On Schul’s death in June 1944, Ullman wrote “and should you create witnesses in wounded songs, they shall, should we lose you, make peace.”