In Memoriam: Hungarian Composers Victims of the Holocaust

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Hugaraton's release In memoriam: Hungarian Composers Victims of the Holocaust pays tribute to the fellow travelers to the Georg Soltis and Béla Bartóks -- students, friends, and other associates -- who fell during the Holocaust. Not one of the composers featured on the disc -- performed by an ad hoc group of expert Hungarian soloists, including renowned violinist Vilmos Szabadi -- represents a name remotely familiar even to expert listeners. Of course, no composer -- indeed, no person -- makes plans to enter the gaping jaws of history's periodic and unthinking purgations of innocent people, and one of the most interesting aspects of collections like Hugaraton's In memoriam: Hungarian Composers Victims of the Holocaust is the opportunity in getting to know music of composers we might not otherwise ever hear from.

Of the six composers featured, Kodály student László Weiner is the one with the most obviously refined technique and readiness for an international career. His Duo for violin and viola betrays Kodály's influence and could nearly be mistaken for Bartók except that it's a little less tart and draws into its scope the language of Hebraic music. Representing the opposite end of the spectrum from the cultivated style of Weiner is the little known Pál Budai, whose Short Dances from the ballet The Doll Doctor was published in 1966. Budai was a Budapest-based Jewish Cantorial musician who apparently dabbled in writing music for Yiddish vaudeville productions; these dances -- likely four-hand reductions of theater orchestra scores -- are composed in a witty manner reminiscent of French neo-classicism.

György Justus' Jazz Suite for piano dates from 1928; the driving rhythms and static harmonies of the first movement "Rhapsody" recalls the Paris-based futurist music of George Antheil. The third movement Tango, however, is something very unique, in which a tango rhythm ambles about in a constantly shifting harmonic field; it almost sounds like something written in the 1980s. Elemér Gyulai is represented by a short and ironic Lullaby sung here by Bernadett Wiedemann, the only vocal music on the album. This, and an accompanying Air for piano by Gyulai -- who died at the Russian front shortly before the end of the war -- are both a little short to leave a lasting impression, but Sándor Vándor's Air for cello and piano is a strongly lyrical and diatonic piece that is immediately attractive through its mildly impressionistic harmony and strong-boned melodic lines; it almost sounds English.

That leaves Sándor Kuti, whose music is the most rewarding and interesting on this disc. Oblique, vague, and completely unpretentious, his Serenade for string trio is sort of like the inverse of Anton Webern. Kuti works his way through a minimal maze of diffracted figures within the strictures of a neo-classic format, sort of what you might get if you crossed something of Morton Feldman's with a Haydn string quartet. Even more affecting is Kuti's Sonata for violin solo, movingly played by Vilmos Szabadi. Its eight minutes of music was crammed in tiny handwriting onto two sheets of paper found at the forced labor camp where Kuti was held and stuffed into an envelope along with a love letter for his wife; it was the last thing she ever received from him. The opening Allegro is powerful stuff, a mixture of diatonic, folk-like motives and cockeyed optimism tinged by the pain of his imprisonment; the latter element is more pronounced in the Largo, but the overall feeling of the movement is still hopeful. The predominantly pentatonic Allegro molto gradually assumes a more agitated, frustrated tone and abruptly breaks off, as though Kuti had simply run out of room on the second paper slip. Kuti's Sonata for violin solo goes well beyond the usual standard in that it offers firsthand testimony of the Holocaust, without the filter of Nazi supervision sometimes felt in works from Terezin-based composers, and it speaks volumes about the indomitability of the human spirit, even in the very worst of circumstances.

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