A Quartet Restores Banned Repertoire To Rightful Place

The Clarion Quartet – from left, Marta Krechkovsky, violin; Jennifer Orchard, violin; Bronwyn Banerdt, cello; Tatjana
Mead Chamis, viola – performed at the Terezín concentration camp May 22, 2016. (Photo: Joyce DeFrancesco)

Breaking the Silence, Clarion Quartet, Music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullman, and others, Klanglogo KL1415. Total time: 56:00

DIGITAL REVIEW — The thrill of discovery fills the new recording called Breaking the Silence by the Clarion Quartet, an American ensemble formed specifically to perform “Entartete Musik” that was suppressed by the Nazis. The musicians’ commitment, imagination, and high technical standards make an irresistible case for the greatness of the music they’re performing.

The players, all members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, formed their ensemble intending to play a single benefit concert. But they were so inspired by the music they were learning and the joy they found in making music together that they decided to remain together to explore and promote “Entartete, ” or so-called “degenerate,” music. The recording resulted from the quartet’s performance on May 22, 2016, at Terezín, the Czech concentration camp where one of the pieces was written. The quartet members believe that adding their voices to the work of scholars, other performers, and music lovers will contribute to bringing this repertoire to its rightful place in musical life.

The Clarion Quartet was formed in September 2015 to present a March 2016 benefit concert for Pittsburgh’s Young Israel congregation honoring 50 years of service by its rabbi and his wife. Tatjana Mead Chamis, the Pittsburgh Symphony’s associate principal viola, was contacted by a prominent physician who belongs to the congregation; he provided her with books and CDs about Entartete music. Excited by the quality of the compositions, Chamis invited her colleagues Jennifer Orchard and Marta Krechkovsky, violins, and Bronwyn Banerdt, cello, to join her. Orchard was a member of the Lark Quartet for eight years in the 1990s before joining the Pittsburgh Symphony, and alternates on first violin with Krechkovsky.

When Chamis saw that the schedule for the Pittsburgh Symphony’s May 2016 European tour included a concert in Dresden, she realized it was a short distance from Terezín (Theresienstadt in German). Knowing that performing there would increase their understanding of Entartete music, Chamis approached music director Manfred Honeck, who enthusiastically backed the plan to perform at Terezín. He shares the quartet’s dedication and commitment to this repertoire. In Pittsburgh and elsewhere, Honeck has championed the music of Walter Braunfels, who converted from Judaism to Catholicism but was sacked from a major teaching post by the Nazis in 1933. Honeck also has made an inspired recording in Stuttgart of Braunfel’s Grand Mass for Decca.

During World War II, prisoners were sent from Terezín to death camps. But because so many of those rounded up were musicians and other artists, a surprisingly rich cultural life grew up amid the squalor. Later in the war, the Nazis used Terezín as a propaganda tool, fooling a Red Cross inspection team in 1944. They even made a film that includes children prisoners performing Hans Krasa’s opera Brundibar. An excerpt with sound can be found here.

Viktor Ullmann’s String Quartet No. 3
was written at Terezín. (OREL)

The Clarion Quartet concert was performed on that same stage seen in the Brundibar film. The program comprised Erwin Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, Viktor Ullmann’s String Quartet No. 3, written at Terezín, and A Walk to Caesarea, based on Hannah Szenes’ short poem “Eli, Eli,” which was set to music by David Zehavi and arranged for string quartet by Russian-Israeli composer Boris Pigovat. Szenes escaped Europe but went back to fight the Nazis and was captured, tortured, and executed.

“It was one of the most meaningful concerts in my career,” said violist Chamis in an interview. “Then when we left to get on a bus and go back to Dresden and to normal life and our careers, I was struck by the thought that they were not able to do so. That was really the moment when I better understood their fates. That feeling has never left me.”

The quartet’s first CD is on a German label because the videographers recording the Pittsburgh Symphony in Berlin, Dresden, and Frankfurt, Nick and Clemens Prokop, also went to Terezín. The brothers own the Klanglogo label.

Nick Prokop was so impressed by the music and the musicians that he decided he wanted to make a CD with them. Normally, musicians approach him about putting out a recording and arrange for financing or for pay for it themselves. In this case, he was so moved by what he saw and heard that he told Chamis he would arrange the funding and secured a grant from the BSCW Foundation in Munich. The recording was made at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in July 2017.

Breaking the Silence includes the three works performed at Terezín plus Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s String Quartet No. 3.

Schulhoff’s Five Pieces long predate the war, having been first performed in 1924. He died of tuberculosis in an internment camp in Bavaria in 1942. The Clarion performance is sharply characterized, fully expressing Schulhoff’s pungent musical personality. The dance-based music is virtuosic and witty.

Clarion Quartet members are all in the Pittsburgh Symphony. (Todd Rosenburg)

Ullmann’s Third Quartet is the most memorable piece on the disc, a kind of musical testimony from inside a concentration camp. Chamis likes to quote Ullmann’s comment: “By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavor with respect to the arts was commensurate with our will to live.” The Clarion performance is both poised and powerful. The wonderfully harmonized lyricism of the opening Allegro moderato is played with gratifying nuances of feeling that are brutally pushed aside in the second section. This performance presents the despair of the fugal Largo with precise definition. The strength with which the Clarion plays the once gentle music of the first section when Ullmann brings it back in the agitated final section fulfills Ullmann’s thought-provoking concept. Throughout the performance, the musicians use portamento masterfully.

Korngold’s life was also upended by the Nazis, though not fatally. One of music’s most astonishing prodigies, Korngold escaped Europe and enjoyed the greatest success writing film scores in Hollywood. He only resumed writing concert music when it was clear that Hitler would fall. Sadly, a return to his native Vienna after the war did not go well.

Korngold’s underestimated Third Quartet, completed in 1945, shows the musical brilliance that led Mahler to call him a genius when he was 11. The Clarion’s exquisitely voiced performance does the piece proud, with a winning feeling of moment-to-moment spontaneity and emotionally focused tonal nuance.

The Clarion Quartet has already received several grants to continue its work. Among the repertoire it is preparing are quartets by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jew who escaped to the Soviet Union but lost most of his family to the Holocaust.

“We’re trying to get a set of parts for the 17 quartets of Weinberg for Curtis,” said Chamis, who, along with Orchard and Banerdt, is an alum of the Curtis Institute of Music. “He was accepted to Curtis but never got to go there. We want his music to be as readily available for students as the music of Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms.”