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Steve Arloff
MusicWeb International, July 2007

Brundibar is a haunting and wonderfully inspiring tale of the triumph of good over evil. The villain Brundibar (Bumblebee) who is consumed by hate and greed is overcome with the aid of animals by the combined forces of children united in common cause. Its main message is that tyranny must and can be defeated when the majority stands up against it. However, there is a chilling end to the opera in which Brundibar reminds the audience that “…Bullies never give up completely. One departs, the next appears…” which is countered by the children who sing “Tyrants come along, but just you wait and see! They topple one-two-three!”

Brundibar was written by Hans Kràsa in response to a competition organised by the Czech Ministry of Education and Culture to produce a children’s opera. It is unclear as to whether Krása’s composition won or even if the competition was ever concluded, since shortly afterwards the Nazis invaded. Krása, being Jewish was proscribed, his work banned from being performed before a general audience. Indeed, before the first performance took place at a Jewish Boys’ Orphanage in Prague both Krása and the opera’s conductor were arrested. They were sent to Terezin, a transit camp from which the inmates were sent on to their deaths in Auschwitz, Birkenau and Treblinka. Nevertheless it was performed at the orphanage three times before the director of the orphanage, his son the conductor, the opera’s director and designer and Gideon Klein a young composer and the opera’s pianist were also rounded up along with the boys from the orphanage and sent to Terezin. There Kràsa brilliantly reworked the piano part utilising the wealth of orchestral talent who were also inmates of the camp and a new production was staged 55 times. Constant replenishment of the cast of children was required since most of them were dispatched to the death camps as soon as each performance was over.

Terezin was designed to try to prove the Nazis’ compassion and in a film “The Fuhrer gives the Jews a town” segments of the opera were shown. It was also used to help dupe the sole representative of the Red Cross, a young inexperienced man who was completely fooled by the camp’s commandant. The opera became a huge hit within the camp and its political allegory was not lost on the audience, particularly since Brundibar wore a moustache. The evil of Nazism was defeated and the Jewish people have survived and thrived but almost all those associated with the opera from the director, musicians and the cast of children perished in the death camps. One million children died in the holocaust, including all but 100 or so of the 15,000 children under 15 who passed through Terezin between 1942 and 1944. Hans Krása himself was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in October 1944, another huge loss to the world of music during that darkest of dark periods. Thankfully the opera has survived and is becoming better known. The adaptation presented on this disc by Tony Kushner, its premiere recording, uses a language that will be even more readily understood by today’s audiences. It expands Brundibar’s explanation as to how he became the bully he was and how people must learn to bend to his will. Though it is good to hear it in the original Czech this adaptation in English will gain it a whole new fan-base further bolstering the sense of triumph over evil.

The opera in this recording is a great success with committed performances from soloists, choir, orchestra and conductor. The Music of Remembrance orchestra was founded specifically to perform and record music composed during those terrible years and music written since in commemoration of those times.

The Overture for Small Orchestra, also by Krása, only serves to increase the sense of loss to music caused by his death. While it would have been nice to have heard some more of his music, the last six tracks of the disc are settings by Lori Laitman of six poems written by children imprisoned in Terezin. These are beautifully sung and accompanied serving as a fitting conclusion to this disc of Terezin-related music.

Anyone who wishes to explore Krása’s legacy or to interest their children in music and teach them a valuable lesson at the same time can do no better than start here.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Opera, June 2007

Hans Krása (1899 – 1944), a native of Prague, studied composition there with Alexander Zemlinsky and in Paris with Albert Roussel. He achieved a reasonably high profile – Serge Koussevitzky performed his Symphony in Boston in 1923 – before his arrest by the Nazis in 1942. He continued to compose during his interment in the Terezín concentration camp, until his deportation to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chambers.

Krása’s children’s opera, Brundibár, had its première, with piano accompaniment in Prague in 1942, shortly before the composer’s arrest. Taking advantage of the presence of other accomplished instrumentalists at Terezín, Krása adapted the piece for a small orchestra. The opera was performed at the camp, fifty-five times: not only was it popular among the inmates but the Nazis exploited the generally uplifting piece – two children, Pepicek and Aninku, find the resources to stand up to Brundibár, a bullying organ grinder – in their propaganda to illustrate their “humane” treatment of inmates.

In this sprightly performance by Seattles’ Music of Remembrance under Gerard Schwarz, Brundibár gives no hint of its grim earlier circumstances. The music is mostly cheerful, straightforwardly rhythmic in the manner of children’s songs everywhere, with an occasional hint of Jewish flavor. The Serenade between the two acts hints at Viennese sentiment, colored by mild dissonances; the chase music near the opera’s close is genial and cartoonish.

The Naxos release follows Music of Remembrance’s 2006 staging in using Tony Kushner’s reworking of Adolf Hoffmeister’s Czech libretto into deft contemporary English, and in assigning the principal roles to adult singers. (Children assumed all the parts at Terezín.) As the two lead children, tenor Ross Hauck and soprano Maureen McKay are clear-voiced and unaffected. Baritone Morgan Smith strikes a nice balance between sneering villainly and sweet reason as Brundibár, without exaggeration; his spoken tag, in which he promises to return, is subtly ominous. The smaller roles are nicely done, with male soprano David Korn striking as a caressing (and oddly feminine-sounding) Cat. The Northwest Boychoir is rhythmically alert, well-blended in a soft-edged way. The Overture for Small Orchestra, composed at Terezín for a similar instrumental complement, offers a bustling energy.

The companion piece, Lori Laitman’s song cycle I Never Saw Another Butterfly, more clearly evokes the Nazi era’s grimness. Laitman identifies the texts as “Poems by Terezín’s child prisoners, murdered in the Holocaust,” and the sparse textures of just a soprano and a clarinet point up their desolate mood. (The booklet gives no indication of when, or by whom, the poems might have been translated into English.) The vocal lines sometimes leap about, though not ungratefully; there is occasional slow, melismatic lament, and both singer and instrumentalist are called on for some pitch-bending. McKay betrays a hint of strain at the top in “The Garden,” but otherwise her performance is sensitive, with effective use of straight tone here and there. Clarinetist Laura DeLuca partners her evocatively in a true chamber-music collaboration.

Kurt Moses
American Record Guide, June 2007

There have been several recordings of Brundibar, the children’s opera that Hans Krasa composed in 1938. It was first performed in Prague and then 55 times in Terezin (Theresienstadt), the “model” Nazi concentration camp, by children-many of whom did not survive WW II. This recording for the first time uses a new English libretto by the playwright Tony Kushner. It’s idiomatic, singable, and it fits both the music and the story quite well. Kushner has also restored the “airplane song” that Krasa cut from the Terezin performances because it might upset the children. The performers in this release are adults, with trained voices, but they sing with the same enthusiasm and affection as the children who have recorded this work (J/F 1996, S/O 1993).

The simple story of the 3D-minute work deals with good and evil in a way that appeals to children. Two children decide to imitate the organ grinder Brundibar by singing on a street corner to collect money to buy milk for their sick mother. Brundibar and the police chase them away and they spend the night on a park bench. A dog, a cat, and a sparrow find them and promise to help them. In the morning, more children join them and they collect money from passersby. Brundibar tries to steal it, but the children and the animals make sure that he is caught and brought to justice.

The music is folksy, melodious, and charming-well suited to children’s voices and capabilities. The use of trained and more mature voices in this recording makes for a better presentation, compared to the children’s voices in the older sets. The singers are accompanied by the Northwest Boychoir and Music of Remembrance, a chamber music ensemble. That group is also heard in Krasa’s Overture for Small Orchestra, written in Terezin-one of the last works he wrote before he was killed in Auschwitz. Only a bit more than five minutes long, it’s a busy piece with fast rhythms and well orchestrated.

The program also includes six poems, by child prisoners murdered in the Holocaust, set to music by the American composer Lori Leitman (b. 1955) who is known for her art songs. These are scored for soprano and clarinet and are performed beautifully here by soprano Maureen McKay and clarinettist Laura DeLuca. The poems show that the children were well aware of their surroundings, and perhaps their fate; and the songs have a haunting quality that stays with the listener.

Naxos has supplied all the texts. The recordings were made in Benaroya Hall, Seattle in May 2006. I hope they find a large audience.

David Perkins
The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), May 2007

Naxos’ terrific recording features the cast of a 2006 Seattle production, with Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz, that used a translation by playwright Tony Kushner. The text is clear and witty, and Krása’s music seems totally fresh, threaded with Austro-Hungarian waltz melodies and rhythms in a rich variety of ensembles, choruses and solos. Something vaguely menacing hovers in the complex harmonies. Still, Krása’s love of melody shines through, itself a kind of defiance…The disc includes another Krása piece, a thorny five-minute Overture for Orchestra, plus the first recording of Lori Laitman’s song cycle I never saw another butterfly, settings of poems by concentration camp inmates, scored for soprano and clarinet.

Rick Jones
The Times (London), April 2007

“Schwarz conducts the engaging parody score with a well-placed baton. The children’s chorus has a poignant innocence... Maureen McKay and Ross Hauck sing and speak with the witty, childish lines with wide-eyed, earnest intent.”

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2007

I find this disc so emotionally disturbing that it is difficult to review. Hans Krasa had been one of the most promising young Czech composers when he was rounded up by the Nazis and transported to the Terezin concentration camp. A few months earlier he had entered a competition with the children's opera, Brundibar. Those who eventually gave the first performance in his absence later arrived at Terezin with a copy of the score, and Krasa orchestrated it for the instruments available to him. With the children there he gave fifty-five performances, most taking part being later exterminated. Now, with an adapted English version of the story from Tony Kushner, the performance uses adult voices for the major roles. That it is such attractive music would, without its background story, make it a highly desirable and often amusing mini-opera. The children in Terezin wrote poetry, most of it with a disturbing content, the American composer, Lori Laitman, setting six of these for soprano and clarinet. Completing the disc is a short and highly attractive Overture composed by Krasa before he was shipped to the gas chambers, the music surprisingly happy and inventive. The performances are given by the Seattle based group of musicians, Music in Remembrance, who are dedicated to the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. I don't suppose they will ever be bettered, the sound quality absolutely superb.

Edith Eisler, April 2001

Among the recently discovered works by Czech-Jewish composers written at the concentration camp Terezín (a way-station to the Nazi gas chambers) was the children’s opera Brundibár (Czech for “bumblebee”) by Hans Krása, born in Prague in 1899 and murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. Performed by the camp’s children 55 times—with the cast changing as the performers were deported and killed—it became a symbol of the prisoners’ undaunted creativity. Assessing the purely musical quality of the Terezín works is almost impossible in view of the wrenching circumstances of their inception and the composers’ still developing talents and creative powers. The miracle is that they exist at all.

The music of Brundibár is a mix of pleasant pop tunes, jazz, patter songs, a bit of Stravinsky and a lot of Kurt Weill. The singers speak more than they sing; the ensembles, from duets to chorus, are almost entirely in unison. The orchestration (here as well as in the fast, rhythmically pungent Overture) is colorful and inventive. The story: a brother and sister try to collect money to buy their sick mother milk by singing and dancing in the street but are drowned out and scared away by the organ-grinder Brundibár. A sparrow, a cat, and a dog suggest that there is strength in numbers. When passing schoolchildren join their songs, they attract attention and donations. The moral: ask for help, take a stand, don’t submit to bullying! Unfortunately, the famous Tony Kushner’s English adaptation of the libretto is distressingly infelicitous; he even misspells “Aninka,” the sister’s name. The performance, using adult voices, is excellent. The settings by the American composer Lori Laitman (b. 1955) of five poems by children murdered in the death camps capture the mood and character of the texts with uncanny empathy, from bitter humor and defiance to dreamy tenderness, soaring lyricism, and heartbreaking sadness. This is a new arrangement for soprano and clarinet (another version with bassoon was performed in New York in 2001 by the Festival Chamber Music Society).

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group