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SCRUTINY | Sara Schabas Recital Honours Composers Under The Shadow Of The Nazi Holocaust

By Joseph So on January 12, 2024

Sara Schabas and Isabelle David in recital (Photo: Karne E. Reeves)
Sara Schabas and Isabelle David in recital (Photo: Karen E. Reeves)

Songs by Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, Viktor Ullmann, Alma Mahler, Alexander Zemlinskty, Erik Korngold / In a dark blue night (Canadian Premiere of Song Cycle by Alex Weiser). Sara Schabas, soprano; Isabelle David piano; Robin Elliott, narration. Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre, January 9th 2024.

Since 2005, January 27 of each year has been designated as the International Day of Commemoration, in the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. It was on that day in 1945 that the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated. A total of six million people died during the Nazi era between 1933 and 1945.

Canadian musicians are remembering this day through music. This year, the Likht Ensemble’s Jaclyn Grossman and Nate Ben-Horin will give a concert, The Shoah Songbook, to commemorate the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In advance of that is this memorable recital last Tuesday, given by Canadian soprano Sara Schabas and pianist Isabelle David, with narration by University of Toronto musicologist Professor Robin Elliott.

Despite the inclement weather, the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at noon was jammed. On the program were songs by six composers — Alban Berg, Arnold Schönberg, Viktor Ullmann, Alma Mahler, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Erik Korngold, most of them Jewish, who lived under the oppression of the Nazi era, some of them escaped to America, while Ullmann sadly perished in a concentration camp.

The audience benefitted enormously from the hugely informative talk given by University of Toronto musicologist Professor Robin Elliott. Some songs are well known and frequently featured on recital programs, such as Alban Berg’s Sieben fruhe Lieder and Arnold Schönberg’s Brettl-Lieder. Both cycles represent a style best described as a sort of expanded tonalities early in the two composers’s careers, before transforming into true atonality.

Schabas’s beautifully clear, light lyric soprano did full justice to these songs. Her rendition of Marietta’s Lied was a highlight. It’s of course from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, arguably the best-known work on the program. Her soft mezza voce and high piano were excellent in this lovely aria. She sang one other piece by Korngold, “When birds do sing” from his cycle Four Shakespeare Songs, also nicely delivered, albeit with a tendency to suppress the consonants, making her English less than clear.

In addition to singing songs of dead composers, Schabas also programmed In a Dark Blue Night, by the young Jewish American composer Alex Weiser. Set to Yiddish texts, it’s an ode to New York City, a place where a lot of Jewish immigrants settled. It’s quite a striking cycle of five songs that requires repeated hearing to fully appreciate, which is possible thanks to YouTube.

I would be remiss if I leave out the excellent collaborative piano of Isabelle David, who had the uncommon ability of being a supportive pianist but also take the spotlight when called for, such as in a few extended piano passages in the songs. The appreciative audience gave the artists a big hand, and they were rewarded with a surprise encore — the 1930’s hit “I got rhythm” from Girl Crazy by Gershwin! A cheery end to a lovely concert on a wintry day.

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Joseph So
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