Aug 2002 Journal

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Journey of musical rediscovery (review)

Wigmore Hall, London, June 2002

'Continental Britons - Emigré Composers', two recent Wigmore Hall concerts, provided a fascinating voyage of musical rediscovery of works by composers who found refuge in Britain from Nazi Europe in the 1930s. The enterprising initiative by the JMI - a musical complement to the Jewish Museum's current AJR-sponsored Continental Britons Exhibition - was given in association with Andante, a new classical music website which will later release CDs of the music. The outstanding violin-piano duo of Nurith Pacht and Konstantin Lifschitz, the baritone Christian Immler and musicologist Erik Levi, and the notable Ensemble Modern, Frankfurt, all gave superb accounts of little-known works by influential figures such as Egon Wellesz, Mátyás Seiber, Franz Reizenstein, Berthold Goldschmidt, Karl Rankl and Hans Gál. Reasons for their neglect in Britain, especially by the BBC, were explored in a provocative seminar chaired by British music authority Lewis Foreman. His distinguished panel included Seiber's pupil Hugh Wood, Hans Gál's daughter, and nonagenarian conductors Peter Gellhorn and Vilém Tausky.

The range of styles was breathtaking. The Viennese Hans Gál (1890-1987), who settled in Edinburgh in 1938, composed prolifically, and an attractive song cycle - Violin Sonata and Serenade for clarinet, violin and cello, all from his pre-war years - showed him a skilful traditionalist with late-Brahmsian tendencies. By contrast, Seiber (1905-60), who came from Hungary in 1935, was an accessible avant-gardist with a flair for jazz, qualities shown in his excitingly rhythmic Violin Sonata, and the punchy 1956 Permutazione a Cinque for Wind Quintet. The gem for me was the brilliantly concise and colourful Wind Quintet by Franz Reizenstein (1911-68), a student of Hindemith and famous Hoffnung composer. It was the first work performed in Britain by the then 23-year-old and one of his masterpieces that deserve more airing, as do those of another influential Continental, the Viennese Egon Wellesz (1885-1974), a Schönberg student who settled in Oxford after the Anschluss. His Viennese works, the Debussyesque 'Cherry Blossom Songs' op. 8 and the richly-textured 'Sacred Song' composed in 1918 for Schönberg's Society for Private Performance of New Music, whilst astonishingly powerful, contrasted with the far more accessible 1948 Octet, betraying the influence of British composers Walton and Vaughan Williams, alongside Mahlerian elegance.

Other highlights included early songs by Hamburg-born Goldschmidt (1903-96) and his ravishing Fantasy for oboe, cello and harp, a 'late work' composed at the age of 88, songs by Goldschmidt's fellow Festival of Britain Prize winner, the Viennese Karl Rankl (1898-1968) and a UK premiere of violin pieces by Leopold Spinner (1906-80). But the most poignant moments came as both Gellhorn and Tausky stood to receive applause for their music, Gellhorn's Intermezzo for violin and piano, of 1937, and Tausky's 'Coventry', expressively played by the Ensemble Modern. This beautiful string quartet evokes Tausky's wartime memory of the bombed cathedral, while serving in the Czech free forces in 1940. Sixty years on, the shimmering strings sounds still convey like an angelic choir Tausky's vision of the 'ruined tower' of the cathedral as a 'symbol of the future'. It is a future enriched by the cultural contribution of all these composers, whose works will hopefully reach ever wider audiences.
Malcolm Miller

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