The Black Oak Ensemble Explores “Silenced Voices”

CDR 189 - cover

WP 2019 - 2SILENCED VOICES / KATTENBURG: Trio à cordes. KUTI: Serenade for String Trio. KRÁSA: Passacaglia & Fuga for String Trio. Tánec for String Trio. G. KLEIN: Trio for Violin, Viola & Cello. P. HERMANN: Strijktrio. FRID: Trio à cordes / Black Oak Ensemble: Desirée Ruhstrat, vln; Aurélian Fort Pederzoli, vla; David Cunliffe, cel / Çedille CDR 90000 189

One of the latest fads among classical musicians is this sort of CD, a collection of pieces by Jewish musicians who either died in the concentration camps or were marginalized and died much later, as in the case of Géza Frid. While I have no problem with performing the music of such composers, I do have a problem with using their suffering as a means of promoting records. To someone like me, who is of Jewish heritage and who had a friend who survived the camps, I find it deeply offensive.

But of course, in the end it is the music that matters, and most of the works performed here are of a high order, particularly the highly emotional and harmonically daring string trio by Dick Kattenburg (1919-1944) which is one of the finest modern pieces I’ve ever heard. His death at age 25 was surely one of the great tragedies of World War II. The music has energy, direction and power, all at the same time. My greatest regret was of its brevity, less than five minutes long. This string trio plays with tremendous energy and commitment.

Next up is the Serenade of Sándor Kuti, who lived only 11 years longer than Kattenburg. This piece, although more accessible than Kattenburg’s in its use of long melodic lines for the strings, occasionally dips into tonality to afford the listener something more to hang on to. The brief and relatively quiet second-movement “Scherzando” sets up a repetitive rhythmic figure played by the violin and viola around which the cello plays both a moving bass and counterpoint. The concluding slow movement is full of deep feeling, consisting of long, limpid lines played either in concert or against one another by the string trio. The opening of Hans Krása’s Passacaglia was a rather dull, drippy affair, sounding too much to my ears like Richard Strauss’ equally drippy and pedantically-written Metamorphosis for Strings, but in the second half the tempo picked up and the interaction of the strings became more interesting. The ensuing fugue is also quite good. The same composer’s Tánec for String Trio is a bright, fast-moving piece with some allusions to Jewish music in its opening figures and a slow section in the middle that is quite tonal and even late-Romantic sounding.

I also liked Gideon Klein’s string trio very much, the first movement of which is a lively affair with almost folk-like rhythms and harmonies that resemble some of the Magyar music collected by Bartók and Kodály. In the second, slow movement, Klein surprises us by introducing a brief fast section that contrasts with the rather sad-sounding surrounding music. Yet for me, it was the “Molto vivace” third movement that presented the most original and interesting music, with more modal harmonies and quick shifts of rhythm and key throughout its brief length.

By contrast, the string trio of Paul Hermann (1902-1944) was a more serious, sober affair, resembling somewhat the early works of Mieczysław Weinberg. Despite a contrasting fast section in the middle, Hermann keeps his harmonic base in what jazz musicians refer to as “rootless chords,” which somewhat undermines any feeling of gladness one may seek in the music.

Frid’s string trio, of which this is the first recording, begins as a lively affair, with strong rhythmic figures played against a somewhat bitonal but not forbidding melodic line. Again there are strong hints of folk music in the material used, and in the second movement Frid used parallel moving harmonies played by the cello and viola in thirds. In the midst of the slow movement, Frid’s music suddenly explodes into fast-moving music that alludes somewhat to Eastern folk music but, again, has a sinister, almost savage bent to it. This leads without a break into the “Allegro giocoso all’ungherese” which has much the same feeling about it.

By and large, then, this is an album of excellent music, no matter who wrote it or under what circumstances—and that is how it should be.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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