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Continental Britons - The Émigré Composers



At the time of Hitler’s rise in 1933, Jewish musicians were perhaps Germany’s and Austria’s most important living cultural assets. There was hardly a note of popular music that did not rely on Jewish artists for either the tunes or the words, and often both. Jewish musicians were equally active in the established and avant-garde music scenes. Of the nearly 70 composers who came to the UK to escape Nazi persecution between 1933 and 1945, some remained permanently, while others stayed for only a short time before moving on to the Americas, South Africa and Australia. Refugee Jewish doctors, academics and scientists were made more welcome in Britain than musicians. By 1938, the Foreign Office had decreed that ‘musicians and minor commercial artists’ were ‘unsuitable’ for entry. Yet composers and performers saw the UK as a haven of liberalism and tolerance...

Continental Britons - The Émigré Composers


Anyone with the slightest interest in these composers can hardly fail to be stirred by this release.

This represents a fine, wide-ranging and authoritatively performed survey of works of émigré European composers who settled in Britain. Some of the pieces were written subsequent to their arrival, but equally others were written in their German or Austrian heyday. None is without interest. All are indicative of their musical directions at a given moment in their compositional lives.
If we take the works in disc order we start with Egon Wellesz’s five-movement Octet of 1948. This is a substantial, imposing work that immediately impresses through its establishment of a distinct sense of personality. Changeable, elegant, moody, and often serious, it’s approachable in the extreme and would make a good concert partner for the Ferguson Octet. The Geistliches Lied date from 1918-19 and are really rather lovely examples of his pared down lyricism, imbuing the songs as well with strong romanticism. The Cherry Blossom Songs strongly suggest a sense of French clarity, notably Debussy, though it’s evident that his Schoenbergian enthusiasms were present too, though these brief songs, none longer than two minutes, are more prisms for that influence not full grown examples of it.
Leopold Spinner is probably the least well known of the composers represented in this two disc box. He studied in Vienna, became a pupil of Webern and emigrated to England in 1939 where he later became an editor at Boosey & Hawkes, the music publisher. His Zwei Kleine Stücke for violin and piano are precisely that, but whilst contrasting in mood are consonant in ethos, which is a lightly Schoenbergian one once again and suffused with a clear intensity. They date from 1934. The most recent work to be written is Berthold Goldschmidt’s Fantasy for oboe, cello and harp (1991). It’s written in his habitual late one-movement form, and doesn’t reveal its secrets easily, though again stylistically there is a soupçon of a French accent about it. Peter Gellhorn’s Intermezzo (1937) is very appealing and would make a delightful encore, not least because of its dancing B section. It was composed two years after he’d made it to Britain. Czech émigré Vilém Tauský’s Coventry is ever affecting in its nobility. A quartet should record it alongside Alan Bush’s Dialectic to show the different sides of quartet writing in Britain in the later 1930s and early 1940s.
Hans Gál has begun to receive an increasing amount of attention on disc. Gratifyingly there are now cycles of the solopiano works, (NI 5751) . The works we have here in this collection are the Violin Sonata of 1920 and Five Songs (1917-21). The sonata is a charmer, very fully lyrical and appropriately rich in witty badinage in the central Allegretto.

At this point I should note that there are two booklets with this set; extensive and first class notes on the music and the composers, and also a booklet of texts with translations where appropriate.
This extremely impressive set is performed with exemplary commitment. All the performances are outstanding. The recordings are first class too. Anyone with the slightest interest in the composers represented can hardly fail to be stirred by this release.
Jonathan Woolf,