Black Oak Ensemble, a string trio boasting three of Chicago’s most enterprising and dynamic chamber musicians, makes its recording debut with Silenced Voices, an album of intriguing works by six promising, early 20th century Jewish composers originally from Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands. One survived World War II as a member of the Dutch resistance, the others perished in concentration camps and elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe. Silenced Voices includes the world premiere recording of wartime survivor Geza Frid’s early Trio a cordes, Op. 1, an inventive work infused with Hungarian folk music influences. Composer-cellist Paul Hermann’s Strijktrio, a forward-looking, cosmopolitan work from the early 1920s, shares its melodies among all three instruments. Dick Kattenburg’s youthful Trio a cordes was praised in a 1938 concert review for its “remarkable mastery and a very personal style.” Gideon Klein’s Trio for violin, viola and cello is notable for its treatment of a Moravian folk song that serves as the theme of its middle movement. Hans Krasa’s Tanec (“Dance”) is a five-minute whirl of dancelike episodes framed by the sonic evocation of trains. His Passagalia is more somber, with its own train motifs, while its companion Fuga bears shades of Germanic and Czech influences and occasional grotesque touches. Sandor Kuti’s Serenade for String Trio brims with Hungarian folk music and piquant chord clusters. His Franz Liszt Academy classmate, conductor Sir Georg Solti, later proclaimed that Kuti “would have become one of Hungary’s greatest composers.” Praised for its “flamboyant vitality” and “expert performances” (Chicago Tribune), the Black Oak Ensemble comprises Swiss-American violinist Desiree Ruhstrat and British-born cellist David Cunliffe of the acclaimed, Grammy-nominated Lincoln Trio and French-born violist Aurelien Fort Pederzoli, a founding member of the groundbreaking, Grammy-nominated Spektral Quartet. Silenced Voices was inspired, in part, by the educational efforts of violist Pederzoli’s mother, a history teacher of Sephardic Jewish descent who led annual student field trips to locations such as Prague, Budapest, Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Terezin.
None of these works in any sense identifies with the carefree café scene, nor strikes the fave licks of the waltzing salon partiers of the 1920s and ’30s. This is serious music that bristles and singes and sings, whose creators know strings and how to make three voices into the proverbial sum greater than its parts. And before I forget, the three members of Black Oak Ensemble—Desirée Ruhstrat (violin); David Cunliffe (cello); Aurélien Fort Pederzoli (viola)—are ideal advocates for this music, a threesome that often sounds like six, or like one, and makes the most of melody and makes magic of irregular rhythm and phrasing, of beautiful lines and jazzy utterances, reveling in the gritty groan of bows digging into strings, and finding the joy in rich harmony and an occasional raucous dance. Thanks to such insightful, committed, and masterful performances, those composers, though dead, are still speaking.
– ClassicsToday.com (10/10; David Vernier)