Schoenfield & Schwarz CD Review

American Record Guide
Publication Date


Schoenfield: Camp Songs, Ghetto Songs
Schwarz: Rudolf & Jeanette
Angela Niederloh, mz; Erich Parce, Morgan Smith, bar; Paul Schoenfield, Mina Miller, p; Music of Remembrance/Gerard Schwarz
Paul Schoenfield’s Camp Songs (2001) have texts sung in stubbornly and ineffectively unrhymed English translation from the Polish. Some of the music is by Holocaust survivor Aleksander Kulisiewicz, collected and written while he was interred at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. Schoenfield’s cycle is set for mezzo, baritone, violin, clarinet, cello, contrabass, and piano. Unlike so much music of this type, the tone is not mournful, but sarcastic, mawkish, and icily nasty (‘Black Boehm,’ who stoked the fires at the Sachsenhausen crematorium, tunefully sings “Both by day and by night, I burn corpses with all my might!”). This sort of black humor makes these songs even more bloodcurdling.
Schoenfield’s brilliant score draws from cabaret and klezmer styles, again lending atrocious force to the proceedings. Players and singers here are at the highest levels of virtuosity, which they must be (the composer, who doubles as pianist, is a superbly equipped musician). For some reason, the sung translations of these texts do not match up precisely with what is printed in the booklet. This astonishing piece was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2003 (the winner that year was John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, which under the circumstances can’t be argued with, but in another year this could easily have won).
The six Ghetto Songs (2008) have Warsaw Ghetto texts by Mordecai Gebirtig (sung in Yiddish). No humor, black or otherwise, here: these are deadly serious, potently intense reflections of the human spirit forced to come to terms with the horrors of those times. Schoenfield wrings out every ounce of anger, despair, and even ecstasy immortalized in these harrowing texts, ending with the command “Jews, let us be cheerful – We’ll see them go to hell!” closing the movement’s dizzying dance.
These two cycles show Schoenfield, one of our very best composers, at the top of his game. Anyone with interest in this subject matter will want to hear these. Ms. Niederloh’s often wild delivery may be irritating to some, but given the subject matter that might not be the worst thing.
The program closes with Gerard Schwarz’s Rudolf & Jeanette (2007), a chamber orchestra piece written in memory of his grandparents, who were murdered in Latvia in 1942. The piece moves through very touching love music, a Nazi march, some nostalgic Viennese waltzes (overlaid with some unkempt interruptions), and a Beethovenian funeral march before returning to its peaceful beginning. Well meant as it is, it makes for a relatively pallid conclusion after the Schoenfield.