In 1943, Mordechai “Motele” Schlein was chosen to entertain the Nazi troops at a soldiers’ club in Ukraine. Aged just 12, he was a violin prodigy, born into a Jewish family, most of them murdered by the Nazis, but Motele had escaped detection because of his blond hair. During his regular visits to the club, he smuggled dynamite into the basement in his violin case and ultimately succeeded in bombing the building. Motele died, aged 14, in the Russian army.
That is one story among many in Violins of Hope, a concert series which has been touring a collection of instruments owned by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust, including some from the concentration camps, around the world since 2008.
This disc features half a dozen of them in string quartets by Schubert and Mendelssohn and a specially commissioned new work. Jake Heggie’s song cycle Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope was written not just to be played by these historic instruments, but to tell the stories of some of their owners.
In six songs, together with one instrumental, “Lament”, we learn of the violinist who was forced to play in the gas chambers, the man who found his violin case filled with human ashes, and Motele’s story, among others. Heggie makes sure that songwriter Gene Scheer’s texts are admirably clear and the tone of his music is perfectly judged, varied, often pensive, moving.
Sasha Cooke is the involving singer and all the performances are finely played by a chamber group of strings headed by violinist Daniel Hope.
‘Violins of Hope: Live at Kohl Mansion’ is released by Pentatone