Forgotten no more: A life-affirming collection of string trios that resonates through the ages

By Greg Cahill

Silenced Voices—Black Oak Ensemble (Cedille)

The six 20th-century composers featured on this hi-definition, 24-bit disc hailed from throughout Europe: Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Romania. Each had a promising future, though five were murdered by the Nazis during World War II, and one survived as a member of the Dutch resistance.

The Chicago-based Black Oak Ensemble—violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, violist Aurélien Fort Pederzoli, and cellist David Cunliffe—is the project-based string trio responsible for this alluring recording (Ruhstrat and Cunliffe also are members of the Grammy-nominated Lincoln Trio). The Chicago Tribune has praised the ensemble for its “flamboyant vitality,” and the Black Oak deftly embraces the melodies and breathes life into these stunning, and sadly largely forgotten, string works.

The album was released last summer, but it resonates with these emotionally charged times. While it is impossible to compare the horror and epic criminality of the Holocaust with the loss and despair felt by many during the global coronavirus pandemic, the music speaks across the years. “These pieces on Silenced Voices are fantastic works of art and, through their darkness, are incredibly human and ultimately uplifting. That such music could be written in these conditions is a testament to the resilience and faith of the artists and the human spirit,” Ruhstrat says. “The music from Silenced Voices was written during adversity. That is a thing in common with musicians and artist’s plight today. But these are two very different times. Perhaps, if anything, Silenced Voices gives us a tiny glimpse into the lives of the musicians and composers [lost in the Holocaust] and what it felt like to have limited resources to create.


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“The essential qualities of Silenced Voices that speak to humanity at this time is the shared feeling of hope.”

Silenced Voices includes the world premiere recording of wartime survivor Géza Frid’s early Trio à cordes, Op. 1, an inventive work infused with Hungarian folk-music influences of Bartók and Kodály. The opening movement echoes the droning pitch and rhythmic qualities of the Hungarian hurdy-gurdy and bagpipe (duda).

Violinist Dick Kattenburg, then an advanced composition student of Hugo Godron, wrote the opening track, also titled Trio à cordes, an energetic five-minute miniature, at age 19. It premiered in 1938, just six years before his death. A local reviewer noted at the time: “A fairly compact piece showing remarkable mastery and a very personal style.”

Sándor Kuti’s Serenade for String Trio, written in 1934, also reverberates with the sound of Hungarian folk music, though the second movement evokes a modern machine-like drive reminiscent of such Russian contemporaries as Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Sir George Solti, a classmate of Kuti at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, called Kuti “exceptionally gifted” and wrote: “I used to visit him at his family’s desperately poor catacomb of a home. I am convinced that, had he lived, he would have become one of Hungary’s greatest composers.” Kuti continued to compose while incarcerated in a Ukrainian labor camp, using scraps of paper smuggled to his wife by a sympathetic guard. Kuti last work was a Sonata for Solo Violin.

The five-minute Passagalia and Fuga Tánec, by Hans Krása, begins with a somber motif before soaring with a moving viola theme. The title suggests a dance, but it is more like a dance of the macabre with strong Germanic and Czech influences.

A moving middle movement based on a Moravian folk song that is longer than the first and third movements combined dominates Gideon Klein’s propulsive Trio for Strings. Klein composed the piece while incarcerated in the same camp as Krása. Klein died after being transported to death camps at Auschwitz and then Fürstengrube just days before liberation.

Paul Hermann’s one-movement Strjktrio, from 1920, shows the influence of Bartók’s vision of freedom from the “tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys.” Hermann, a concert cellist, shared the melodic responsibilities evenly with the violin and viola. Swept up in a Nazi raid in 1944 after fleeing to France, he left a substantial number of works. His grandson has posted those on the website of the International Music Score Library Project (imslp.org).

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