By Cristina Schreil
It started with a chance wandering into a music store in Budapest.
While touring there with the Ravinia Festival—partaking in the Hungarian capital’s merry blend of gypsy music, hearty cuisine, and fine wine—violinist Desirée Ruhstrat and cellist David Cunliffe stumbled upon some sheet music. They found string trios, including works by Hungarian composer Sándor Kuti, who was once described to have the potential to be “one of Hungary’s greatest composers.” They also found trios by Czech composers Hans Krása and Gideon Klein. It was a fitting find, perfect for the Black Oak Ensemble—their string trio with violist Aurélien Pederzoli.
After delving into the music, they were all blown away.
“We immediately liked it; it suddenly grabs you,” Cunliffe said of the works. In their first plunge, however, they only focused on the music—and were ignorant to their backstories.
“The interesting thing is we read the piece before we realized what the composers had actually suffered,” explains Ruhstrat. After some initial research, they “then realized that all of these composers had a common theme. That’s how this all got started.”
The theme in question is harrowing: the Jewish composers happened to be victims of Nazi-regime horrors, with some perishing in concentration camps. This inspired the Chicago-based ensemble to investigate other such string trios by composers who were killed or whose works were censored or lost in this era.
Almost precisely two years after that Budapest discovery, they’ve just released Silenced Voices, their debut album, on Cedille Records. The album spotlights six early 20th-century Jewish composers from Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands. Of them, only one survived WWII.
Including Krása, Kuti, and Klein, the six are Dutch composer Dick Kattenberg, whose music was once considered lost until his niece unearthed manuscripts in her mother’s belongings; Hungarian composer and cello virtuoso Paul Hermann; and Hungarian Géza Frid, who survived and lived until 1989.
Because of this theme of shedding light on lesser-known or long-lost works, the project required much more preparation than a typical new record. It was as much a historical hunt and logistical juggling act, the ensemble players said.
Pederzoli explained that as soon as they found and played the works discovered in Budapest, they started programming the Klein, Kuti and Krása in their concerts. They found more: the Kattenberg, which hadn’t yet been edited, and the Hermann, which didn’t have an edition. They connected with different historical organizations and families of some composers. “It became very clear the album had to be made,” Pederzoli said. His mother, Catherine Pederzoli-Ventura is a history teacher of Sephardic Jewish descent, who leads Holocaust-awareness trips around Europe. She helped inspire the project and conceived the name.
The trio also notes the interesting phenomenon at the heart of presenting these works, which listeners know before delving into them have a tragic history. “The composers featured on this recording would likely prefer that the listener find their pieces interesting, appealing, perhaps moving, not because of the circumstances of their deaths, but because the music itself evokes these feelings through their compositional mastery,” Robert Elias, of the OREL Foundation, writes in the liner notes.
The listener experience, with the context of these composers presented front and center, is opposite to how the Black Oak Ensemble first encountered the music. Thus, they hope to spotlight the music and the composers, not their tragedies, first and foremost.
“I think that’s one of the thing about all these composers is how unique their voices were, even at the time they were writing,” Pederzoli reflects. “It’s crazy to imagine what they would have been if they had lived just a little bit longer.”
In our interview, the players waxed poetic about myriad elements of each work. For the Kuti, which has a second movement that Cunliffe likened to Bartok, Pederzoli adds that the third movement often provokes tears from audience members in concerts. “Kuti had the inflection that you find in Kodaly or in Bartok, this very Hungarian way of speaking and writing.”
Ruhstrat adds that the Kuti features moving moments: “The last movement to me it has an incredibly haunting cello solo at the beginning that is quite amazing.”
Kline and Krása—both involved in the same musical network in Prague and both later organizing cultural life in the Theresienstadt concentration camp—share similar aspects. Pederzoli remarks that Kline seems closer to his folk roots than Krása, who was the more famous of the two. “I think my favorite movement in the Kline is the second movement, which is based on a Moravian folk song, which is very, very interesting,” he adds.
Hermann contrasts with his Hungarian countryman Kuti, Pederzoli says, painting how Hermann was “closer to almost like British Impressionist music, especially the beginning.”
Ruhstrat says that the Hermann was also the most difficult for the ensemble to wrangle, especially onstage. It’s “full of unison passagework between the three instruments. There are two fiendish passages; the exact same passage repeats itself in a different key,” she says. “You just see everyone’s eyes about two measures before [seem to go], ‘Oh here we go!’ and the smiles that cross our face when we get through it.”
In programming the album, they all shared the same opinion on which work should end it: Frid’s, which came to the ensemble soon before they recorded in 2018. The world-premiere recording was an apt end, as Frid was the only survivor.
Cunliffe summed it up well: “That element of hope.”
For more information on Silenced Voices, visit www.blackoakensemble.com/silenced-voices.