Music for the End of Time – BBCSO Total Immersion – Theresienstadt

Written by: Peter Reed

It is impossible to take in the scale and thoroughness of what happened in Theresienstadt (Terezín in Czech), the fortress town in Moravia that Nazi Germany recreated as a ghetto and concentration camp for thousands of Jews who either died from disease there or were moved on to the death-camps between 1941 and 1945. The Nazis also turned it into a propaganda tool to divert attention away from what was really going on there, giving the illusion of a flourishing cultural life, especially in music. And it was the music that was the subject of this BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion day.

The Nazis’ ‘achievement’ at Theresienstadt was crowned by a cynicism that beggars belief, whereby they permitted music – the art in which German countries have excelled over the centuries – to thrive there, with gifted composers such as Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krása and Gideon Klein, natural successors to Berg, Janáček, Suk, Brahms and Dvořak. These composers, who perished in early middle age or younger, were at the heart of European music.

The first of the day’s two afternoon concerts opened with Hans Krása’s short Overture for Small Orchestra, written in the ghetto in 1943 for strings, two trumpets and two clarinets, plus a big concerto-like role for piano played with great élan by Philip Moore, the conductor Alpesh Chauhan steering Krása’s guileless tunes and perky orchestration with an objective and precise touch. Pavel Haas’s Study for String Orchestra (also written in 1943 in the ghetto) turned away from its opening carefree theme and sturdy counterpoint into a shadowy central section that deferred to his teacher Janáček and which could have suggested a reality at odds with the music’s use on the soundtrack for a Nazi propaganda film ‘The Führer gives a city to the Jews’.

The BBCSO’s strings were joined by full brass and woodwind for Erwin Schulhoff’s Symphony No.5. This Czech composer (born in 1894 who died of tuberculosis in 1942 in the Wülzburg camp) was not interned in Theresienstadt, but as his work became increasingly politicised in the 1930s – he set the Communist Manifesto as an oratorio – he inevitably attracted Nazi attention. He started on his Symphony No.5 in 1938, as tensions between Czechoslovakia and Germany tightened. It’s a brutal piece, recalling the spirit more of Mosolov in his Iron Foundry than of Shostakovich, with doom-laden timpani and Mahlerian side-drums on call throughout its thirty-five minutes. The music is a visceral soundtrack to wartime struggle aiming at a glorious conclusion, and Chauhan and the BBCSO neatly made the point that any neoclassical dalliances are squashed flat by the score’s industrial weight.

The second concert featured the BBC Singers directed by Nicholas Chalmers, with a linking narrative compiled and delivered by the baritone Simon Wallfisch, the grandson of the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch who survived Auschwitz (she was in the audience), piano accompaniments from Iain Farrington, and music for string trio and quartet beautifully played by Hana Mizuta-Spencer and Melanie Gruwez (violins), Kate de Campos (viola) and William Clark-Maxwell (cello). There was no applause during the ninety-minute sequence that included music by Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Sylvie Bodorova and Pavel Haas. Chalmers’s lyrical direction showed off the BBC Singers completely at home with the languages, idioms and sentiment of the folksongs, Yiddish songs and Jewish sacred pieces, and the direct, uncompromising performances in this small-scale, intimate music gave an uncomfortably strong idea of the privations and perverted normality the Theresienstadt internees endured.

Wallfisch’s linking narrative included diary entries detailing the hidden birth of a child (procreation was forbidden), ending with a description of the small family’s preparation for their final journey to Auschwitz. The BBC Singers fielded two uncredited, immensely stylish cabaret chanteuses in songs by Dieter Gogg and Ullmann, Wallfisch broke hearts in the Lacrymosa extract from the Requiem for Terezín, composed in 1997 by Sylvie Bodorova (born 1954). She combines elements of Verdi’s Requiem with synagogue chant, a reference to the Verdi being performed many times at Theresienstadt, a fact that again beggars belief. The string players were formidable in Klein’s String Trio, a very powerful, personal – and final – work written in 1944 when Klein was twenty-four, just four years after he had been offered a scholarship by the Royal Academy of Music. He had assimilated the influences of Schoenberg and Janáček, the latter movingly deployed in the variations of the slow movement, played with great tenderness by the three musicians. The four players also threw themselves into the last movement, ‘Wild Night’, of Pavel Haas’s Quartet No.2, ‘From the Monkey Mountains’, possibly the only Quartet with a role for percussion, which Bogdan Skrypka delivered in great style.

Skrypka also signed off the programme in Iain Farrington’s arrangement of the closing number from Ullmann’s opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, with a drum-roll recalling the very end of the film Cabaret, the camera lingering on the denizens of the Kit Kat Club, some of them sporting swastika armbands.

Ullmann’s opera (Peter Kien’s libretto sung in German, with English surtitles) was the first of the two works in the third concert. A reckless political satire written in 1943, Der Kaiser von Atlantis amazingly got as far as being rehearsed in Theresienstadt, but the character of the Emperor was too obvious a parody of Hitler. The production was terminated, as were the cast and composer. In its twenty numbers, the Emperor decrees death for all; Death goes on strike so that no-one can die. People are even falling in love. Death’s one condition for going back to work is the Emperor’s demise. Things return to normal. The performance was semi-staged with great clarity by Kenneth Richardson, and conductor Josep Pons and his quirky ensemble of fourteen players (including parts for banjo, harmonium, alto sax and harpsichord) went for the Weill-like irony with a will, relishing Ullmann’s contorted version of the ‘Deutschland über alles’ tune and his biting reworking of Luther’s ‘Ein’ feste Burg’ chorale to suit the words “Come, death, our worthy guest”, the latter inevitably casting a long, sad shadow. Ullmann had nothing left to lose.

The cast of seven singers ramped up the absurdist element admirably. Henry Waddington (Death) and Thomas Johannes Mayer (Kaiser Überalles) were a fine and strongly sung double-act, Morecambe & Wise with no sunshine; Derrick Ballard produced a huge sound as Loudspeaker; Robert Murray a very jittery Harlequin; Soraya Mafi and Oliver Johnston as the two lovebirds, both particularly affecting; and Hanna Hipp on sizzling form as the Drummer Girl. All the singers hit the music’s idiom with natural authority and, for all its bluster, great warmth.

For the sheer malignity of the Nazis’ Theresienstadt project, all the music so far squared up to matters of life and death with an extraordinary engagement, whereas Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, the final work of the day, is to do with disengagement. Despite the composer’s first-hand experience as a prisoner-of-war, the work just wasn’t an act of completion or redemption. It was, though, played by Cara Doyle (clarinet), Sabine Sergejeva (violin), Ben Tarlton (cello) and Ben Smith (piano) – all from the Guildhall School – with ferocious intensity, high imagination and what seemed effortlessly controlled virtuosity. But this is not the place to air my mounting misgivings about Messiaen.The Total Immersion however was a triumph, the best of the BBC. The first concert is being broadcast on March 11; the second is currently unscheduled but should not be missed; the Ullmann opera is also being broadcast on March 11.

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