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Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, June 2010

In Camp Songs Schoenfield sets poems by Kraków-born—but not Jewish—journalist Aleksander Kulisiewicz (1918–1982), who was interned at Sachsenhausen. The work, commissioned by Music of Remembrance and premiered in 2004, is sung here in an English translation by Katarzyna Jersak. Ghetto Songs, premiered in May 2008, is based on poems written in the Kraków Ghetto by Mordecai Gebirtig (1877–1942). I’m delighted to see that the CD booklet includes the lyrics of both works, which are also reproduced on their website.

In another time and another place the Russian poet Yevtushenko understood—and Shostakovich underlined—the importance of humour in the face of adversity. And so it is here, with ‘Black Boehm’ a lacerating little ditty dedicated to the hunchback who tended the crematoria at Sachsenhausen. After a brooding prelude for cello and clarinet, the music becomes somewhat frenetic, a hellish cabaret if you will. Baritone Erich Parce is not the most subtle of singers, but then this music hardly requires one; that said, he certainly makes the most of these grim lyrics—‘And young ladies and old biddies/Little kiddies, too, why not?’—the composer himself playing the jaunty piano part. Black humour indeed.

‘The Corpse Carrier’s Tango’ has plenty of rhythmic verve, Angela Niederloh singing with abandon—and rather too much wobble. The recording is close, but warm and detailed, and anyone expecting a spikier idiom may be surprised by the strong vein of almost Mahlerian lyricism on display. It’s put to good use in ‘Heil, Sachsenhausen!’ where the cutting curses ‘Scheissen Polack, clod’ are accompanied by music of real warmth. The mournful cello line is especially telling here, Parce’s casual observations—‘Our legs thin as bamboo shoots/Death’s heads looked like blackened cactuses’—rendered all the more shocking by his controlled, rather detached, delivery.

A cigar-puffing Churchill is the subject of the slinky little number ‘Mr C’, in which Niederloh sings of her hopes that he might defeat the Nazis soon—even as early as 1943—and treat Hitler ‘to a funeral’. History has shown that this was a very forlorn hope indeed, which makes this song all the more poignant. The work ends in darkness and turbulence with ‘Adolf’s Farewell to the World’, Parce and Niederloh in ringing form. Schoenfield plays a mean piano—what surge and energy—Laura DeLuca’s wild, piercing clarinet especially thrilling.

A most rewarding work, and rather different from the dark melancholy of the Ghetto Songs, translated from the Yiddish by Bret Werb. Shifreie is the poet’s daughter, whose portrait hangs on the wall by his bed. The cello and violin set the scene with a heartfelt prelude, baritone Morgan Smith warmly expressive as the doting father. This is music of more subtle sentiment, and even Niederloh as the child calibrates her voice accordingly. A touching, haunting piece, beautifully executed.

Different again is the anguish of ‘Moments of Despair’, in which the poet reflects on the horrors of the ghetto. The stentorian piano chords and spiky violin paint a ghastly picture, before breaking into a wild gallop. There’s a strong Expressionist flavour to this music, all crazy angles and manic gestures, Niederloh and Smith singing with astonishing bite and intensity. More than a hint of Berg here, the ‘Gling glong!’ of ‘Tolling Bells’ measuring out the agony. No simple Mahlerian onomatopoeia this, the singers underpinned by music that’s both simple and forthright.

Even starker is the contrast between the imagined fields and the very real ghetto streets in ‘Our Springtime’. Simple, bucolic pleasures dimly remembered, the season of rebirth and renewal cruelly subverted, the earth now ‘One giant graveyard’. The music is suitably austere. The clarinet solo that opens ‘Ray of Sunshine’ ushers in a bustling tune, to which the mezzo gives soaring voice. Hope and animation are the keynotes here, the music rising and falling to great effect. And then there’s the short-lived optimism of ‘Moments of Confidence’—the words ‘Jews, let us be cheerful’ sung to music of some animation. Niederloh and Smith acquit themselves well in these rapid-fire lyrics, but really it’s the instrumentalists who galvanise the piece with some of the most trenchant playing on this disc.

Gerard Schwarz’s piece—like Schoenfield’s, a Music of Remembrance commission—was written in memory of his grandparents, Rudolf and Jeanette Weiss, who perished in the camp at Riga. In the liner-notes he speaks of the work as a tone poem; in essence it seems to be a celebration of life, from its elegiac opening through to music of some ardour and thrust, all most sensitively scored and lovingly phrased. The wind playing in the military march is especially fine, the ensuing waltz strangely distorted. There is none of the sardonic humour of Schoenfield’s pieces, but then this is a simpler, more direct idiom the emotions of which need no underscoring or emphasis. Moreover, there’s a quiet nobility here that is most affecting and the funeral march a splendid, rather Handelian, affair. It ends poignantly, with an iridescent epilogue in which Mina Miller’s celestial tones are beautifully caught.

This is a most rewarding disc, and not at all the unremitting gloom one might expect. Even though they are at some remove from the events depicted here, both Schoenfield and Schwarz have managed to tap into—and celebrate—life in the shadow of terrible adversity. All credit to Music of Remembrance for commissioning these pieces. Even if the singing is a bit variable this remains a very enterprising release indeed. A little off the beaten track perhaps but it’s certainly worth the detour.

Oleg Ledeniov
MusicWeb International, May 2010

Good music for a good cause here.

Paul Schoenfield’s Camp Songs is a setting of five poems by Aleksander Kulisiewicz, translated into English. You can trust Paul Schoenfield to create music of highest quality, colorful and powerful. But here he applies his polystylistic palette to an especially striking effect. Aleksander Kulisiewicz must have been a man of great wit and sense of humor, although often bitter, and he preserved it during the years of his imprisonment in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where these songs were written. With sardonic laugh he denies the charms of rotten “Lady Death”, he mocks the blind enthusiasm of Nazi helpers, he tears the mask of lies from the pretty façade of “Kulturkampf”, and absorbs with glee the sparse news about German defeats on the fronts. These are songs of mental resistance.

The composer provides music well worthy of the texts, with a matching dark humor. The merry sounds of polka, waltz, tango and foxtrot seem almost cheerful on the surface, if you don’t listen to the words:

Oh, that bloody pest, the damned Germania,
Tortures men now four years in a row.
In the crematorium she roasts corpses:
It’s so warm and so cozy there…
Because there one person bakes another,
Neither baker nor butcher is he;
So my friend, hurry into the oven!
Immer langsam und sicher und froh!

This dissonance is hair-rising when you try to match the two pictures in your head. In one mind, it seems impossible to let them coexist. There can’t be normal life side by side with people murdering other people on a daily basis, as part of their job, with workhours and holidays. But you know that it was, it happened—and start to notice the dark undercurrents of the music, like deadly worms under the surface. This poetry is unmannered, rude, caustic—and so is the music, with stomps and bangs, citations and Kurt-Weillish ruggedness. It is hard to tell how much of the original melodies of Kulisiewicz were leveraged, but the result definitely sounds like the genuine voice of the “half-savage Pole”, as this poet and journalist called himself.

In both song cycles, the composer employs minimal resources: violin, clarinet, cello, double bass and piano. Out of these five, usually only two or three are playing at any moment. But the combinations change with such kaleidoscopic speed, and are written with such skill, that the result is a rich musical texture, almost orchestral, yet never overpowering the voices.

The Ghetto Songs are more somber, more tragic, and much more Jewish (ah! this clarinet!). There is no anger or sarcasm in six poems by Mordecai Gebirtig, sung in Yiddish; there is grief, fear and hope. The music changes accordingly: it’s more Lieder than Songs now. The instrumentation is a marvel. I disagree with Schoenfield’s approach to Moments of Despair: in my opinion, the music contradicts the spirit of the poem:

Futile our prayers,
We’ve slipped past God’s reach,
The heavens are locked tight
As the core of the earth.
The heavens are locked tight,
And fearfully dark;
Without question or doubt,
This tortures our hearts.
Without question or doubt
The secret’s disclosed:
There is no more justice,
There is no more God.
No peace or solace,
Just hardship and pain.
What will be become of us?
What will be our fate?

But the music sounds as if Shostakovich wrote an operetta about Abduction from the Shtetl. I feel the same about A Ray of Sunshine: the lyrics speak about “a tender caress”, the music sings aerobics! The final song is a wild dance of triumph, almost a csárdás. The song-cycle ends on a note of joy and confidence.

But Mordecai Gebirtig was killed in the Kraków Ghetto. Life’s logic is not concert logic. What could be a stylish ending for some discs, has no right to be for this one.

And that’s why the last piece of the disc is Rudolf and Jeanette, a poignant threnody by Gerard Schwarz to the memory of his grandparents, killed in a concentration camp. They lived, they loved, they were killed, and their grandson, who never saw them, sings to them a tender lullaby. The violence is never pictured explicitly. The introduction is like a sad fairy-tale. The passionate love music of Rudolf and Jeanette is interrupted, but not by a bombastic invasion a-la Leningrad Symphony—and thanks for that, it would be too primitive. However, there is something inhuman in the Nazi music, its hostility growing and growing—but instead of a tragic climax we hear an offstage quartet softly playing sweet, nostalgic Viennese waltzes, like a last memory, a last thought of life and love that were. And then Gerard Schwarz gives to his grandparents what they never had: a funeral march. It is simple and personal, and builds into an impressive crescendo. The ending is quiet and tender, like a light veil softly covering the memory.

The history did not give us many lessons. Real lessons that everyone should know, understand and remember. But one of these very few lessons is the Holocaust. It’s not about the Germans and the Jews. It’s about us, people, and what we can do to us, other people. Homo sapiens did not change, as a species, for the last seventy years. So it’s all still there, hidden deep, and it can repeat itself, if we do not remember this lesson.

The performance is devoted. In the Schoenfield pieces, there is a fine balance between the instruments. The music is frantically fast in places, and with swift tempo changes, yet the ensemble never gets desynchronized and swings effortlessly. The clarinet is the soul of the music. The double-bass is ominous. The omnipresent piano, played by the composer himself, ties everything together. The singers have strong, attractive voices and employ excellent word-coloring. In the first cycle, the baritone (Erich Parce) is appropriately extrovert and ironic, while in the second cycle Morgan Smith applies more vibrato and sounds more vulnerable and personal. Angela Niederloh sings the two parts differently: she has Lotte Lenya-like pressure and directness in the Camp Songs, and is softer and warmer in Ghetto Songs. In the Schwarz piece, the chamber orchestra is light and sensitive. The recording quality is very good. The insert notes are informative enough, telling the stories behind the works, and providing the English texts (though they slightly differ from what is sung in the Camp Songs). Overall, this is a valuable project: for the music, for the texts, and for us staying human and—let’s hope—protecting our children. This is one lesson that will not benefit from repetition.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, May 2010

Had the works on this disc been written a few years earlier, they might well have been included in Naxos’s 50-CD Milken Archive of American Jewish Music. But two of the entries here—Gerard Schwarz’s Rudolf and Jeanette and Paul Schoenfield’s Ghetto Songs—are of quite recent vintage: 2007 and 2008, respectively.

It was in Fanfare 28:3 that I reviewed a volume in the aforementioned Milken Archive that contained Schoenfield’s Viola Concerto, a work I deemed to be a major new concerted work for viola and orchestra that is sure to be snapped up by every viola player of note. So far, at least, the Naxos remains the only recording of it, but Schoenfield is well represented in the listings by two dozen or more other albums. His Camp Songs is the earliest written piece on this new CD, dating back to 2001. The five numbers that comprise the set—“Black Boehm,” “The Corpse Carrier’s Tango,” “Heil, Sachsenhausen!,” “Mister C,” and “Adolf’s Farewell to the World”—are settings of poems by Aleksander Kulisiewicz (1918–1982) written during his interment in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin.

Kulisiewicz, a Pole, was not Jewish, but he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis for his antifascist writings. While in the camp, he wrote many poems and composed more than 50 songs of his own. In the years following his liberation, he began amassing a large volume of music, poetry, and artwork created by camp prisoners. His archive—the largest extant collection of music composed in the camps—is now a part of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives in Washington, D.C.

Kulisiewicz’s poems are filled with the blackest of black humor and fetid with references to splattered blood, guts, and excrement. These were not meant to be poems of heartbreak and suffering, but rather of protest and defiance through biting sarcasm and bitter irony. Schoenfield’s musical settings are appropriately astringent, having about them a Kurt Weill-like character somewhat similar to the songs that were part of the German cabaret culture. They are sung in English translations of the original Polish provided by Katarzsyna Jerzak. Mezzo Angela Niederloh and baritone Erich Parce alternate in the first four numbers and join in duet in the final song. Music of Remembrance is a sizeable ensemble of string, wind, brass, and percussion players, too numerous to mention by name, that provides the instrumental component in various combinations.

Schoenfield’s six Ghetto Songs are settings of poems by another Polish poet and songwriter, Mordechai Gebirtig (1877–1942). Unlike Kulisiewicz, Gebirtig was Jewish, and unlike Kulisiewicz, Gebirtig “mercifully escaped” being rounded up and deported to a concentration camp. Instead, he was shot and killed outright during the infamous Krakow Ghetto uprising on June 4, 1942. His most famous song, Undzer shtetl brent, written in 1938, became a battle cry for Krakow’s Jewish youth against the Nazis. Gebirtig’s poems, sung here in their English translations by Bret Wirb, are quite different from Kulisiewicz’s verses. These poems—“Shifrele’s Portrait,” “Moments of Despair,” “Tolling Bells,” “Our Springtime,” “A Ray of Sunshine,” and “Moments of Confidence”—reflect a range of emotions, from sadness and sorrow to nostalgic recollections of happier times. Schoenfield adopts a more modernistic language, more melodically angular, more harmonically dissonant, and more rhythmically irregular and complex. Occasionally, as in “Moments of Confidence,” elements of klezmer music are clearly in evidence, while in the song “Tolling of the Bells” a nod toward Schoenberg and a kind of free atonality prevail. Niederloh is once again the mezzo, but in these numbers she is joined by baritone Morgan Smith.

Despite its title, which sounds like it could be an opera, Gerard Schwarz’s Rudolf and Jeanette isn’t even a vocal piece; it’s purely instrumental. Rudolf and Jeanette were the parents of Schwarz’s mother who, according to the composer’s note, “were shot at the edge of an open grave at the concentration camp in Riga, Latvia.” This poignant “in memoriam” is best described as a tone poem or an extended dirge. Its opening minutes distantly echo something out of Richard Strauss (his Metamorphosen, perhaps), or possibly something from Mahler or Schoenberg and Webern in their early pre-atonal phases. The impression is reinforced when the music morphs into a march-like mode tinged with a mixture of irony, dread, tragedy, and horror. Schwarz need make no excuses for writing a very lush, Romantic-sounding, unapologetically tonal piece. It serves its purpose well, and it’s very moving.

Music of Remembrance is a Seattle based group composed of members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Its artistic director is Mina Miller. All of the works on this disc were commissioned by the ensemble.

This is not a program of music meant for clapping your hands and being joyful. Its subject matter is grim. But its purpose is to ensure that we never forget the horrors of the Holocaust. Strongly recommended.

Donald Rosenberg
Gramophone, March 2010

Music of Remembrance focus on works evoking the Nazi concentration camps

The newest recording from Music of Remembrance, a Seattle ensemble devoted to Holocaust artists, contains three striking works that evoke myriad horrors, hopes and nostalgic reminiscences.

Paul Schoenfield’s song-cycles are based on verses, and some music, by writers who endured concentration-camp and ghetto life. In Rudolf and Jeanette, Gerard Schwarz pays tribute to grandparents murdered at a concentration camp in Latvia. Sardonic poems and songs of Aleksander Kulisiewicz, a Polish journalist who spent time in the German concentration camp Sachsenhausen, gave Schoenfield fertile ground to employ a panoply of musical styles in his Camp Songs. The dark, biting words are twisted through klezmer, tango, folk and march-like sonic prisms. Schoenfield’s ability to insinuate in sly thematic and harmonic gestures give the songs touches of malevolent mirth.

The verses in Schoenfield’s Ghetto Songs came from the pen of Mordecai Gebirtig, another Pole whose poems are impassioned and sentimental portraits of life under the Nazis. The musical language is lyrical, brooding and defiant, full of Yiddish references, with dabs of impish and bold, Shostakovich-tinged colours.

Schwarz’s Rudolf and Jeanette, as a tone-poem, is an affecting blend of tender and disquieting utterances. The composer, longtime music director of the Seattle Symphony, calls upon the spirits of various Strausses, early Schoenberg and Weill as he weaves a loving ode to grandparents he never knew.

The performances are fierce and rapturous, with Schoenfield as pianist in his works and Schwarz at the helm of his score. Mezzo-soprano Angela Niederloh and baritones Erich Parce and Morgan Smith bring arresting intensity to the song-cycles.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2009

Moving, satirical and downright disturbing, these songs from American composer, Paul Schoenfield, do not make happy listening as he sets poems from those caught up in the Holocaust. To hammer home the message he contrasts dance and popular idioms with the words of those who were suffering unthinkable atrocities. I know we have to be reminded of them so that they will never be repeated again, but its all very harrowing. Words for Camp Songs—here in their first recording of an English translation—came from a fortunate survivor, Aleksander Kulisiewicz. The Polish dissident, Mordecai Gebirtig, was not so fortunate, the poems for the Ghetto Songs, somehow surviving his early murder by German troops. The disc is completed by Gerard Schwarz’s work in memory of his grandparents. He and his parents were fortunate to find refuge in the States, but his grandparents were not so fortunate, and were shot in 1942 at the concentration camp in Latvia. It is not a doom-laden work, and looks at happier times in their life, only the ending makes you aware of their untimely death. Music of Remembrance was formed to perform such works, its members largely coming from the Seattle Symphony, and are here performing with Paul Schoenfield as pianist. Angela Niderloh is the mezzo soloist in Camp Songs, and is joined by the baritone, Morgan Smith, in the more sombre Ghetto Songs. The recording quality is superb, and the performances do all they were intended to do.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group