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April 28, 1998

Modern ComposersBerthold Goldschmidt: Last Chapters. Last Chapters; String Quartet No. 2; Belsatzar; String Quartet No. 3. Mandelring Quartet, ars-nova-ensemble Berlin. (Largo Records, CD # 7243 5 56620 2 6) 1990.

Berthold Goldschmidt (1903 - 1996) is not well known in the United States, and when he is known it is generally as a conductor rather than a composer. Goldschmidt began his musical career as a composer, however, and for a time was one of the leading lights of the considerable artistic scene in pre-nazi Germany. After an impressive beginning, however, his career was interrupted when he was barred from any musical post by the nazis. He emigrated to London in 1935, where he lived until his death in 1996 at age 93. Though he composed a number of works in England, difficulty in getting his works performed caused him to devote himself entirely to conducting after 1958 until 1982, when he was invited to compose a clarinet quartet. The present album is the first recording devoted entirely to the music of Goldschmidt.

Goldschmidt's experiences in 1930s Germany informed his work for the rest of his long career, and the works contained in this album from the German company Largo Records can be "read" as a concise history lesson as well as a purely musical experience. The title work of the album -- Last Chapters, written in 1931 -- was the last piece Goldschmidt wrote in Berlin before he was silenced by the nazis, and his String Quartet No. 2 was the first piece he wrote in exile, in 1936. The other two works are from 1985 and 1989, but contain numerous allusions and quotations from the two earlier works, as well as allusions to other composers.

The String Quartet No. 3 is written in a single movement, "conceived as a...rhapsody" and structurally based on a "musical cipher" representing the names Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg. Though Goldschmidt said that he conceived the quartet as a "rhapsody," as explained in the liner notes, the work "reveals on close examination a remarkable balance between formal and expressive elements on the one hand and recapitulatory and arch forms on the other.... [The] two codes...form the constructive basis for thematic formulations, for thematic-gestural transmutations and working- out processes."

Goldschmidt stated that in this 1989 work "the terror [of the nazi holocaust] could not be forgotten or ignored." The terror is represented in the work by a quotation of a march-like theme from an earlier work ("Belsatzar," also on this album), a "melody associated with Belshazzar's blasphemous words" that form the heart of the earlier work. As the work develops, the theme of Belshazzar's blasphemy is gradually smothered by a traditional Jewish melody of Chanukah. The concluding development is a recapitulation in "compressed mirror-symmetry with the beginning of the work" leading to a "final expressive gesture -- an open ending overshadowed by a touch of uncertainty and sadness."

Written at age 86, the String Quartet No. 3 truly was one of Goldschmidt's last chapters in a long and remarkable musical career. It is an extraordinary statement of personal and social history and also an extraordinary feat of highly technical yet extremely powerful composition.

You can hear the String Quartet No. 3 by Berthold Goldschmidt on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, May 7 at 7:30 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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