Hugaraton's release In memoriam: Hungarian Composers Victims of the Holocaust pays tribute to the fellow travelers of the Sir Georg Soltis and Bela BartÃ³ks -- 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 this one is the opportunity to know music of composers we might otherwise never hear from, even if the styles don't quite match up.
Hungary was, from 1920, a regency headed by former Admiral MiklÃ³s Horthy, a leader not particularly well disposed to Jews, though he genuinely detested communists. With the outbreak of war in 1939, Hungary joined the Axis powers. Shortly before, Jewish musicians such as conductor Sir Georg Solti -- who had just made his opera debut -- and non-Jewish but famously "degenerate" ultra-modernist Bela BartÃ³k fled Hungary in order to escape persecution. In 1940, Horthy instituted a number of forced labor camps for communists and other political undesirables. This policy claimed the lives of half of the composers on this album -- Jewish composer Laszlo Weiner and communists SÃ¡ndor Kuti and SÃ¡ndor VÃ¡ndor included. The horrendous losses that Hungary took fighting in support of Operation Barbarossa -- Hitler's disastrous campaign against Russia -- ultimately led Horthy to secretly attempt to find an avenue with the Allies to negotiate surrender. Hitler caught wind of this and in early 1944 forced concessions out of Horthy that finally got the death camp trains rolling in Hungary, starting in April. Word of this managed to reach the Allies, and international pressure came to bear on Hungary to stop it. On July 7, Horthy complied, though despite the best efforts of Raoul Wallenberg and others working within the system to save lives, some 437,000 Hungarian Jews perished at Auschwitz. One of them might have been composer PÃ¡l Budai on this album. In October, Horthy surrendered Hungary to the Soviets, and a few days later, the Nazis deposed him and took control. They further legitimized the dreaded Arrow Cross Brigade, a pro-Nazi separatist group which harassed and killed Jews daily through to the end of the war. In one of these skirmishes, composer GyÃ¶rgy Justus was taken out of his Budapest home by the Arrow Cross and shot in the early part of 1945.
Of the six composers featured on Hugaraton's In memoriam: Hungarian Composers Victims of the Holocaust, KodÃ¡ly student Laszlo Weiner is the one with the most obviously refined technique and readiness for an international career. Weiner's Duo for violin and viola betrays his teacher's influence and could nearly be mistaken for BartÃ³k 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 PÃ¡l Budai, whose Short Dances from the Ballet "The Doll Doctor" was first published in 1966. Budai was a Budapest-based Jewish cantorial musician who apparently dabbled in writing music for light entertainment, and these dances -- likely four-hand reductions of theater orchestra scores -- are composed in a witty manner reminiscent of French neo-classicism.
GyÃ¶rgy 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 fields -- it almost sounds like something written in the 1980s. ElemÃ©r 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 SÃ¡ndor VÃ¡ndor'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 SÃ¡ndor 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, played movingly 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 "Allegro molto" is predominantly pentatonic, though it gradually assumes a more agitated, frustrated tone and breaks off abruptly, as though Kuti had simply ran 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.
Vilmos Szabady, violin & PÃ©ter Barsony, viola - Laszlo Weiner: Duo for violin & viola
MÃ¡rta GulyÃ¡s & Emese Mali, duo pianists - PÃ¡l Budai: Short Dances from the Ballet "The Doll Doctor"
MÃ¡rta GulyÃ¡s, piano - GyÃ¶rgy Justus: Jazz Suite - Tango
Ditta Rohmann, cello & MÃ¡rta GulyÃ¡s, piano - SÃ¡ndor VÃ¡ndor: Air for cello & piano
Vilmos Szabady, violin; PÃ©ter Barsony, viola & Ditta Rohmann, cello - SÃ¡ndor Kuti: Serenade for String Trio
Vilmos Szabady, violin - SÃ¡ndor Kuti: Sonata for violin solo