The story of Terezin‘s music is well known: Hitler’s Nazis maintaining this one prison camp — Theresienstadt in German, Terezin in its native Czech — as a cultural showcase, composers and other artistic spirits encouraged to create and perform for a time and then dragged off to the killing chambers at Auschwitz. Some of the Terezin music was smuggled out in manuscript, survived, and has now been published, performed and recorded. It has also, of course, been celebrated in many Holocaust observances, but this has sometimes had the effect of reducing the actual stature of the music to sentimental objects that must be loved and honored for their very existence. I confess that I have on occasion been led to look on the Terezin repertory in this way — until the amazing Wednesday-night concert that began last week‘s 56th annual Ojai Music Festival.
That event was a “marathon” piano recital by the formidable Marino Formenti: four hours of astonishing music astonishingly played, ranging from Beethoven at 8 o’clock, Schubert shortly afterward, through three works from the Terezin repertory, to the 80 minutes of Morton Feldman‘s For Bunita Marcus, the airy mix of notes (few) and silences (many) that sent the exhausted crowd home shortly after midnight. The concert took place in the cramped precincts of Ojai’s Art Center; of the capacity crowd of 180 or so, perhaps half a dozen walked out during the Feldman. Formenti later reported that when he played the work in Vienna a smaller percentage left before the end. “But there were only 35 people there at the start,” he explained.
Two of the three Terezin works, the Sonata by Gideon Klein and the Sixth Sonata by Viktor Ullmann, were actually composed during imprisonment; Pavel Haas‘ Opus 13 Suite had been published a few years before its composer was sent to the camp. All three works were strong, forceful, beautifully shaped and teeming with imagination. Formenti performed them for what they were, not relics but real music. Hearing them played this way — the mingling of violence and sardonic humor in Ullmann’s Sonata, the clear and radiant slow movement of the Klein — it suddenly hit me that this music marked a point of termination in more ways than one. It was music whose composers were to be shortly marked for death. It was music whose style had also come to a deadly, if not dead, end.
That style is a dense, contrapuntal manner, still within the bounds of tonality but drawing a spiritual restlessness from a striking inner density. Contrapuntal lines come and go, and draw blood by colliding with one another. Quiet moments abound: a long melody of agonizing beauty in Gideon Klein‘s Sonata, floating high above a disturbed harmonic pinning. No composer of any consequence — none, at least, that I can name — carried this style forward. A few months after these three Terezin inmates met their deaths, the war ended, and composers apparently sensed the need for a new beginning. Soon there would be electronic music, musique concrete, total serialism, the computer. By the time the Terezin music came to light, it was already old-fashioned. The timing for a re-evaluation may be just right; Formenti’s performances showed the way. I told him of my surprise that so important a musician, putting forward so striking a repertory, goes unrecorded. “I‘m just as surprised,” was his answer.
Sunday morning’s concert, traditionally at Ojai a time for lighter fare, was taken over by the blatant pretense of Ute Lemper‘s cabaret-songs act (complete with barstool and wineglass to underscore the point) and Eliot Fisk’s guitar of similar motivation. The Emerson Quartet, performing in three concerts the final five quartets of Beethoven and the final three of Shostakovich, had this year‘s top billing, and they were indeed as splendid at their work as everybody knew they would be. Formenti’s three appearances were even more spectacular, if only because he was far less known to the crowd. In addition to the “marathon,” he gave a “family concert” of “Today‘s Music for Today’s Kids”: four brand-new works full of electronic trickery and, in the case of Georg Haas‘ wonderully resonant Hommage a Ligeti, of two pianos side by side, one of them tuned a quarter-tone lower than the other, on which Formenti performed simultaneously (!). (He had done the same with another spellbinding work in his debut concerts at LACMA two years ago.) He then repeated that program, with additions, at a grown-ups concert that afternoon. At the morning event he had invited the kids in the audience to come onstage and look at the gadgetry close up; the look of the slender, diminutive Formenti playing paterfamilias to a surging juvenile horde remains fixed as one of the festival’s visual astonishments.
Formenti is a consummate artist, whose scope expands at every new viewing. He hadn‘t delved into the established repertory before this visit. Now we have his Beethoven and Schubert to add to our estimation: the former’s fiery, cheekily capricious Opus 126 Bagatelles and the deep purple of Schubert‘s last sonata, composed mere weeks before his death. The latter work became, with Formenti, virtually a tone poem about fate and death: the left-hand trills like dark portents, a pronounced but controlled rubato in the first movement, as a weakened body fending off blows. The incredible moment in the slow movement where the mournful music in C-sharp minor sideslips to our amazement into a C-major far side of the moon seemed to stop everyone’s breath, the cherishable Formenti no less than the rest of us.
To close the weekend, the Emersons drew from the shadows the dark chills of Shostakovich‘s final quartet, the work the group had played last spring at UCLA at the core of the remarkable Noise of Time theatrical event. Even alone onstage, the work is pure theater: deep, pained melodic utterances that well up from a profound impulse beyond reckoning; a sculpture formed at the edge of silence. At the end these four marvelous musicians held the audience in a long time of responsorial silence, and the birds of Ojai framed the moment with their own golden thread. Then we all piled into our cars and made it back to reality.