• Music transcends its origin on Shelburne pianist's CD
    By Jim Lowe
     | January 13,2006

    Music is the crystallization of emotion through organized sound, so it should come as no surprise that an event so horrific and powerful as the Holocaust spawned important music – even from the prison camps and concentration camps.

    Perhaps the best known was Olivier Messiaen's steely powerful masterpiece, "Quartet for the End of Time," written and premiered while the French composer was a prisoner of war. But there was a large quantity of music that is less known – but not without immense power.

    Shelburne pianist Paul Orgel has researched, performed and now recorded an album of works written in the Czech concentration camp at Terezin, Theresienstadt in German. "Music from the Holocaust" (Phoenix USA PHCD161), featuring solo piano works by four composers, not only impresses with the power of this amazing music, but with the conviction with which it was performed.

    Not all the music achieves greatness, but each of the works by these four composers – Karel Berman, Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein and Viktor Ullmann– has something important to say. Interestingly or coincidentally, their works appear on the album inversely to their importance musically.

    Ullmann (1898-1944) is the only one of these composers whose music is performed with any regularity today. In fact, one of his operas, "The Emperor of Atlantis," also written and premiered at Terezin, was toured and recorded several years ago by Robert De Cormier and members of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and VSO Chorus.

    Ullmann's Piano Sonata No. 7 (1944) is certainly the masterpiece of the album, full of variety, life and grandeur. Like most of the works on this CD, it is very Germanic with some Slavic spice, and it shows the influence of Schoenberg's 12-tone system. Still, in this sonata, the feel is lighter in texture.

    This five-movement sonata is also disconcerting because it is virtually never predictable, often employing an ever-changing rhythm to keep the listener from becoming grounded. In a waltz-like movement, the dance is always askew. Finally, the work culminates with the security of the Bach-like Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Theme.

    Like most great music, the sonata is entirely abstract. There is no way the listener can tell the circumstances under which it was written. It is neither sad nor depressed – it goes much deeper than that.

    Orgel's performances throughout this album are sympathetic and convincing. His clean technique and clarity of thought help illuminate the often-thick writing. In this work particularly, his performance is rich-sounding and powerful, and also extremely touching. Both the sonata and Orgel's performance transcend the theme of the album, offering pure music for music's sake.

    The recording was made last year on the new Steinway concert grand in the University of Vermont Recital Hall in Burlington, and is clean and reverberant. Interestingly, the recording engineer was John McClure, known for his recordings of Stravinsky, Bernstein and Bruno Walter for Columbia Records, who now lives in Benson.

    Klein's (1919-1945) Sonata for Piano (1943) is another substantial piano sonata with power and grandeur. The language, also abstract, is complex and striking, reflecting Schoenberg without being atonal. Here, Orgel's performance, though it could afford a little more contrast of touch, particularly in the final movement, delivers the work with real emotional force.

    Haas' substantial (1899-1944) Suite for Piano, Opus 13 (1935), is truly a suite, with many different flavors. There are tastes of Bach, Webern, Poulenc and Stravinsky. Again, the music is abstract, but the discomfort of the Holocaust can be heard seeping in.

    Written by the only one of these composers to survive the Holocaust, Berman's (1919-1995) Reminiscences for Piano (1938-1945) is the only work that is overtly programmatic, and in this case, autobiographical. Movements range from "Mládí (Youth)" to "15.3.1939 Okupace (March 15, 1939 Occupation)" to "Ostvětim-Továrna na Mrtvoly (Auschwitz Corpse Factory)" to "Novy Źivot (New Life)." Maybe because Berman was primarily a singer, the harmonic language is substantially simpler, but it does convey a lot of heartfelt emotion.

    This is not a masterpiece musically, but an attractive illustrative work that paints a horrible picture ending with hope. The exception is the seventh movement, "Sámi-Sámi (Alone-Alone)," which is powerful, desolate and touching.

    Throughout the album, Orgel's playing is excellent and experienced. He has done the world a favor by bringing back this important music – for both historic and emotional reasons.

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