The English Symphony Orchestra’s fine commemoration of International Holocaust Memorial Day

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Inspired by Mahler – Mahler, Weinberg, Schulhoff, Ullmann: April Fredrick (soprano), Zoë Beyers (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (conductor). Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, relayed via the ESO’s YouTube channel, 27.1.2021. (JQ)

English Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Woods
at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth

Mahler arr. Woods – ‘Das irdische Leben’ (The Earthly Life)
Mieczysław Weinberg – Concertino for Violin and Strings Op.42
Erwin Schulhoff – Suite for Chamber Orchestra Op.37
Viktor Ullmann arr. Woods – Chamber Symphony Op.46a (Third String Quartet)

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.

This concert will be available to view on the ESO’s YouTube channel from 19.30 GMT on 27 January 2021. If you can support them by watching you will experience a fine concert.

John Quinn

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