Martha Argerich and Friends - POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews - Warsaw - 17th February 2018

Lt. to Rt. Michael Guttman, Martha Argerich, Annie Dutoit, Jing Zhao, Akane Sakai

This desperately moving and emotionally committed concert was enough to impel the very stones to pity. As a demonstration of the healing power of music and an unflinching  confrontation of historical memory, it was unsurpassed. The performances will remain in my mind as one of the more profound musical experiences of my life. 

Although short in duration and modest in scope, this inspiring first POLIN Music Festival entitled Roots'n'Fruits ran from 16-18 February  in Warsaw at the Museum for Polish Jews. The festival is hopefully the bud of a beautiful flower of historical regeneration and reconciliation in Poland. The opening concert of the festival was dedicated to the great philanthropist Zygmunt Rolat who has always cultivated the deepest respect and understanding between cultures.

This chamber concert opened with the Variations on a Theme by Paganini (1941) for two pianos by Witold Lutosławski. This work set the retrospective moral tone of the evening. The premiere of the piece was performed in the same year as its composition by Lutosławski himself together with Andrzej Panufnik at the Aria Cafe in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Lutosławski earned his living and supported his mother through piano playing at cafes such as Art and Fashion and Aria. Many concerts were held in secret in private homes. 

Martha Argerich came onto the stage with her customary self-effacing demeanor to become the medium, the conduit for the spirit of the composer she happened to be engaged with at the time. This virtuoso work was performed in spectacular style with great élan and panache together with Akane Sakai. I felt an element of competition, a rivalry emerging between this work and the original that even surpassed on occasion dear Nicolò Paganini's original violinistic conception. A superbly wrought and glittering ornate counterpoint was cultivated by these two artists between the two pianos.

Akane Sakai then performed a selection of Szymanowski's 20 Mazurkas from his Op. 50 (1924-26). From 1922 Szymanowski began to spend a great deal of his time living in picturesque Zakopane, a remote but superbly photogenic Polish town (now a ski resort) in the High Tatra mountains. 'A bird of paradise in the back-blocks' as the music critic Dorota Szwarcman once perceptively referred to him. He was exposed at this time to the wild and uninhibited, sometimes mournful and melancholic, nearly always raucous, even crude on occasion, improvised music of the Górale highlanders which imbues these late works. Adrian Corleonis referred to the mazurkas as expressing a type of 'sophisticated primitivism'. Surely they are the most musical and evolved response in modern times to the mazurkas of Chopin. Although finely articulated by Arkane in their dense complexity, I felt the embedded mazurka rhythm did not communicate itself or move me in any organic or deep manner. 

She then played the two mazurkas which comprise op.62 (1933-34) which are not particularly redolent of Polish folk elements. In a letter to Zofia Kochańska in February 1933, Szymanowski wrote of the first: 'I have written a very pleasant and cheerful mazurka, and I enjoy playing it very much. It’s funny but as I get old the music I write gets more and more cheerful!!' He may well have been inspired by memories of Chopin rather than any attempt to recreate the spirit of the mazurka. The second mazurka was commissioned by a London melomane, Sir Victor Cazalet, when the composer was resident in England in 1934. In fact the premiere of both took place in London played by the composer at a private concert on 4 November 1934. Sakai communicated the more abstract musical fabric, dense texture and timbre of these mazurkas with virtuosity.

A backwater of the Vistula River near Młociny in Warsaw on the morning of the concert

Szymon Laks (1901-1983) from a family of assimilated Jews, was a composer, conductor, author and translator. He was a prisoner  in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp for over two years and was appointed the conductor of the orchestra of the camp. One of the first things that he noticed upon arrival at the camp was the huge collection of the finest musical instruments and the band setting up their music stands. As an introduction to his Cello Sonata one of Martha Argerich's daughters, Annie Dutoit, came onto the stage and read a gruelling and shatteringly emotional account of his arrival and period of incarceration in Auschwitz as a musician from his memoirs entitled Music of Another World.  


Szymon Laks with his wife and son 
(from the family archive/ Culture pl)

The book was controversial as he was strongly in opposition to those who feel that music must have provided a 'self-defense' for the suffering prisoners. On one occasion Christmas carols merely gave further pain to those suffering in the women's infirmary. The history  of the horrors and development of the camp are described in minute detail in numerous sources but certain activities seemed to me particularly obscene. The playing of classical music in Auschwitz is shocking if one believes that art has any humanizing function.  On misty  mornings  like that  of my visit, squads of prisoners would stagger to work in the fog and return through the gate dragging their murdered, dead and emaciated companions back through the slush and slime. 

One of the six camp orchestras (one contained  over a hundred musicians), perhaps directed by the conductor of the former Warsaw Radio Orchestra, might strike up Schubert’s festive Marche Militaire. In Auschwitz it became a hellish danse macabre, utilized to maintain the prisoners’ marching step. The orchestra  played during the monstrous Selectionen when  the healthy  were separated  from  children,  the sick  or infirm,  who  were  immediately  dispatched   to  the  gas chambers. Amid the suffering one clearly saw ‘the perceptible expression  of its geometrical madness... When this music plays, we know that our comrades, out in the fog, are marching like automatons; their  souls are dead and the music drives them, like the wind drives dead leaves, and takes the place of their wills . . .’(If This is a Man Primo Levi).

Thomas Mann, agonizing over the relationship of ethics and aesthetics in his novel Doctor Faustus, perceptively refers to music as ‘that curiously cabbalistic craft’. The composer Adrian Leverkühn makes a Faustian pact with Satan, a dalliance with the ‘poisoned butterfly’ of music. For the Nazis, German music became the emotional confirmation of their rightness in exterminating the disgusting ‘vermin’ in their midst. All musical genres were performed in the camp, from the symphonies of Beethoven to the blackly humorous song
The Best Times of My Life.

'A Hungarian at the  piano,  a virtuoso  . . . He  played  Mozart, Beethoven,  Schubert, Bach.  And  then  he  suddenly   played  a funeral march by Chopin. And when he stopped, he sat without moving,  hands  on the keys. We all understood; we understood him and he understood us.’

Music on the occasion of an execution made the anguish particularly acute. The  fine women’s  orchestra  at Birkenau  (directed  by  the famous violinist Alma Rosé, whose mother was Gustav Mahler’s sister) was particularly sought after by the musical connoisseurs of the  SS after  a demanding  day on  the  selection  ramp  dispatching women and children to the gas chamber. Dr Mengele liked to relax to the unresolved chords of Tristan und Isolde after a tiring day carrying  out  comparative  autopsies  on murdered twins. This psychopath once asked Anita to play Schumann’s deeply affecting Träumerie (Dreaming).  Later  she  was to  ask  with  savage irony  ‘What was he dreaming about?’

Laks wrote equally grimly and with black humour:

'...when an SS-man listened to music, especially of the kind he really liked, he somehow became strangely similar to a human being … at such moments the hope stirred in us that maybe everything was not lost after all.  Could people who love music to this extent, people who can cry when they hear it, be at the same time capable of committing so many atrocities on the rest of humanity? There are realities in which one cannot believe.'


The suicide rate of musicians was among the highest in the camps as they were occasionally forced to play their entire family into the jaws of death.

We then heard the Cello Sonata (1932). The fine Chinese cellist Jing Zhao joined Akane at the piano. This spirited neo-classical prewar work was unknown to me (as is too much of his music). Given the context portrayed in the reading of the destiny of this composer that followed its composition, one could not help but be uplifted and profoundly moved by the triumph of the human spirit over direst adversity.

Following this our mood was wrenched out of the 'slough of despond' into carefree joy and bliss by Martha Argerich joining Jing Zhao in the Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major Op.3 by Chopin. A brilliant performance in true style brillant manner 'But there is also bravura, verve and a Slavic, typically polonaise vigour, as well as an undeniable feel for the spirit of the dance. That is just how it was danced at grand balls in Poland.' (Mieczysław Tomaszewski)  All this was present in one of the best performances I have ever heard of this 'light' work.

Młociny Park in Warsaw on the morning of the concert

After the interval, Michael Guttman and Akane Sakai performed two parts of  Baal Shem, Three Pictures from Hassidic Life written in 1923. Bloch writes of his music 'It is neither my purpose nor desire to attempt a reconstruction of Jewish music, nor to base my work on more or less authentic melodies...I am not an archaeologist; for me the most important thing is to write good and sincere music [...] What interests me is the Jewish soul, the enigmatic, ardent, turbulent soul that I feel vibrating throughout the Bible...it is all this that I endeavour to hear in myself and to transcribe into my music; the venerable emotion of the race that slumbers way down in our souls.

We heard the rarely performed I. 'Vidui' (Contrition) Un poco lento and III. 'Simchas Torah' (Rejoicing) Allegro giocoso. Michael and Akane gave a fine sense of nobility to the more introverted 'Vidui', a haunting cantilena of redemption. Simchas Torah, inspired when Moses handed the torch to the children of Israel, is deservedly popular in its exhilarating mood. This was brought off wonderfully well to these rather untutored ears.

Finally the Piano Trio No.2 in E Minor Op. 67 (1944) by Dimitry Shostakovitch. This is arguably the greatest of Russian piano trios performed by Guttman, Argerich and Zhao. Ivan Sollertinsky, a Professor at the Leningrad Conservatoire, was one of the composer's closest Jewish friends. He died suddenly in February 1944 and Shostakovitch dedicated the trio to his memory. 

The work begins with ethereal, unsettling, scarcely physical high harmonics on the cello - surely the most extraordinary beginning of any chamber work in the western canon. The bleakness and austerity were perfectly captured here by the players, especially the profound understanding and familiarity with the work displayed by Martha Argerich. The tense rhythmical urgency of the second movement scherzo was superbly conveyed especially by that so characteristic 'Marthaesque' high voltage electrical charge irresistibly investing power to its forward momentum. 

The Largo was a profoundly moving and introspective period of unfathomable grief, plumbing the depths of the suffering human soul. The pain of attrition and the sudden mindless violence of war. The heart rending Jewish melodies Shostakovitch offers or possibly invents in the hellishly ironical danse macabre within the final movement were terrifying - in turn seductive, secretive, furtive, almost hysterical with anguish, wailing, the climactic piano part a lava flow of thunderous notes which only Argerich can command so awesomely with her genius. As the work closes the almost celestial harp arabesques on the piano laid over a world of suffering expressed in the violin and cello. Oh that desperate Jewish dance that sobbingly leads us back along a path of bleak yet infinitely courageous resignation to a blighted destiny...


A perfectly judged encore of warmth and soft embrace - the second movement of the untroubled and loving  Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor. Civilization, that welcome  reverse of the human coin.

A musical and humanist experience I shall treasure forever among the few that have deeply moved me in my life.



And the Vistula  flows heedlessly on to the sea....

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