Opera Holland Park marks Holocaust Memorial Day in words and music

In November 2014, an exhibition opened in Brno entitled Janáček’s Most Talented Student to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the death of the Czech composer Pavel Haas.  In 1941, Haas was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp where, alongside composers Viktor Ullman, Hans Krasa, Gideon Klein and the conductor Karel Ancerl, he became one of the main cultural figures in the camp.  In October 1944 all five were deported to Auschwitz, where Haas, Ullmann and Krasa were killed immediately.  Klein was sent from Auschwitz to Fürstengrube, where he died in January 1945.  Ancerl, unlike his wife and son, survived.

Pavel Haas was born on 12th June 1899 in Brno, the son of a prosperous businessman, Zikmund Lipmann Haas (1871–1944), and Olga Epstein (1874–1933), who was the daughter of a Russian clerk in a steamship company from Odessa.  Haas’s personal and professional life was almost exclusively linked with Brno, where a Moravian school of composition developed in connection with Leoš Janáček’s teaching activity at the Brno Organ School and later at the Prague Conservatory.  Haas’s musical talents were evident from an early age and he began to study at the Brno Association Music School in 1913, where his first teacher was Jan Kunc (1883-1976), who was first a student then a colleague of Janáček.  In 1919, Haas entered the newly established Brno Conservatory where he continued his studies with Kunc and also, in September 1920, joined Janáček’s composition class.  Upon graduation, he was required to work in his family’s shoe-making business, but Haas did continue to engage in Brno musical life during the inter-war period.  The music he composed inevitably bore the imprint of Janáček’s mentorship but he was also influenced by French musical experiments, both Debussy’s impressionism and the eclectic modernism of Les Six.

In 2017 tenor Nicky Spence, pianist Lada Valešová and the Navarra Quartet released the first recording of Haas’s 1923 Fata Morgana Op.6 (Resonus 10183), a 30-minute setting of sensuous texts from The Gardener by Rabindranath Tagore, for voice and piano quintet.  To mark Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January, this year they came together again to perform Haas’s song cycle under the auspices of Opera Holland Park.  Directed from the piano by Valešová and filmed by Simon Wall, Fata Morgana was preceded by a reflection on memory, denial, truth and disinformation by the author and journalist, Howard Jacobson, and the filmed recording is now available via the OHP’s social media platforms. 

Lada Valešová, Nicky Spence and the Navarra String Quartet

Fata Morgana was the first major work composed by Haas after he finished his studies with Janáček in 1922.  The title alludes to a scientific phenomenon: a mirage, caused by refracting light, that may be seen over land or water, in a narrow band floating just above the horizon.  It is also the Italian name of that medieval menace, Morgan le Fay, the sister of King Arthur who misused her magical powers to create mischief and mayhem.

It is this mesmerising magic and mischief that we hear in the murmuring mists and quivering flutterings of the opening instrumental prelude, the first of Haas’s extensive interludes and commentaries on the vocal settings of Tangore’s poetry.  The bows of the Navarra Quartet members are like paintbrushes, dipping deep into perfumed pots of scent and chromatic pools of colour which form sensuous sonic canvasses.  Leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmor’s winding climb to the stratosphere is both a visual wisp of deceptive, ambiguous light and the “quiver of fleeting touch” [translations by Valešová and Martin Čurda] of which Spence sang in the first of three poems that form the first movement of Fata Morgana, a warm breath which “like a torn flower petal” is “carried away by a breeze”, while the static harmonies sigh and whisper like hearts and souls. 

An impressionist languor is infused with a tension, urgency and impassioned melancholy reminiscent of Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, and it’s interesting that Janáček had himself set Tagore’s poetry to music in The Wandering Madman in 1922, after attending a lecture given by Tagore in Prague the preceding year.  Nicky Spence – whose 2019 recording of The Diary, with Julius Drake and mezzo-soprano Václava Housková, won the 2020 Gramophone solo vocal award and who so impressed recently at Wigmore Hall – immediately captures the similar air of gypsy passion and unpredictability that infuses Haas’s settings, the sense of unexpected joy and warmth being enhanced by stirring cello reflections from Brian O’Kane which seem to root the free explorations of the voice in the very real and physical.

Frenetic repetitions and a fragmented conversational string mosaic precede the second poem, in which the text communicates the restless torment of unfulfilled desire.  There’s a sort of crazed rapture driving Tagore’s imagery: “I run as a musk-deer runs, in the shadow of the forest,/ driven insane by his own scent./ I veer off my path and I wander, seeking what I cannot find,/ and finding what I do not seek.”  But, as the temperature and tempo of strings’ clamorous counterpoint rises, Spence is able to surmount the rapid ostinatos and repetitions, and to strengthen and intensify his tenor without the voice ever becoming tense.  The strings’ fervour is eventually quelled by the vocal lyricism, which they absorb into their own melodious commentary, coloured with a few Hassidic tints; and while there is occasional disruptive percussive pizzicato and piano patternings, Sascha Bota’s viola finally subdues the storm of sensual longing,

With the third poem comes a welcome harmonic and textural stillness.  Spence relishes the ecstatic yearning and fulfilment that the text promises – “My heart, the bird of the thickets, has found its sky in your eyes.” – as motivic repetitions in the strings seem to hold time captive in a rapturous physical and spiritual embrace.  The expanding tessitura, dynamic and sonic canvas climaxes as Spence truly soars in “the kingdom of the stars” where we hear the heart-gripping rapture of Jenůfa or Káťa Kabanová

Starting with the cello, one by one the strings initiate a progression towards unrestrained longing in the second movement.  Here there is a stunning declamatory insistence in the vocal line: “My beloved, my heart yearns day and night for the meeting with you – for the meeting which is like all-consuming death!”  And with the plea, “Let us be one in beauty” Spence unites pain and ecstasy in a gloriously visceral phrase.  “Alas, my desire is in vain! Where else can one hope for such merging, except in you, my love?” he despairs, his tenor communicating emotional torment but entirely free of vocal strain, while the strings’ fierce tremolando reinforces and makes tangible his unrest.

The final poem moves towards fulfilment, but release and peace are not achieved without struggle. The final textual and motivic ‘cleansing’ brings a sense of acceptance, however, before the final spontaneous vocal outpouring: “You Dweller of my dreams!/ You are mine, you are mine, you are mine.”  From a frisson of fiery fortissimo trembling, the strings subside, withdraw, and finally vanish, like a flame extinguished but whose heat leaves the air charged and changed: in Haas’s own words, this is ‘the vision dissolves into nothing’.

The film of the performance is available to watch on Opera Holland Park’s website, Facebook page and YouTube channel.  The text of On Memory by Howard Jacobson is available on the Opera Holland Park website.

Claire Seymour

Pavel Haas: Fata Morgana Op.6

Nicky Spence (tenor), Lada Valešová (piano/artistic direction), Navarra String Quartet (Benjamin Marquise Gilmore (violin I), Jonathan Stone (violin II), Sascha Bota (viola), Brian O’Kane (cello))

Filmed and edited by Simon Wall, Tall Wall Media.  Streamed 27th January 2021.

ABOVE: Nicky Spence, Lada Valešová and the Navarra Quartet