Music from Terezín

Ilse Weber
Ich wandre durch Theresienstadt; Und der Regen rinnt; Wiegala
Karel Švenk
Terezín March
Emmerich Kálmán, arr.
Terezín Lied
Robert Dauber
Serenade for Piano and Violin
Viktor Ullmann
Beryozkele; Clere Venus; Immer inmiten
Erwin Schulhoff
Sonata No.2 for Violin and Piano
Two Songs for Violin and Piano
Drei Stimmungsbilder
Sonata for solo Violin
Pavel Haas
Suite for Piano, Op.13/2
Sedm písní v lidovém tónu, Op.18 [Seven Songs in Folk Style; selection]
Karel Berman
Reminiscences Suite [selection]
Sonata in C minor for Violin and Continuo, BWV1017 [first movement]
Carlo Sigmund Taube
Ein Jüdisches Kind

Anne Sofie von Otter (soprano), Daniel Hope (violin), Bengt Forsberg (piano) & Bebe Risenfors (accordion, guitar and bass)

Reviewed by: Anne Ozorio

Reviewed: 30 September, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

This concert was an act of passionate commitment. Theresienstadt, often referred to as Terezín, was a Concentration Camp. Most of the prisoners were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau for execution, and included some of the composers whose music was heard during this recital.

Why would people write and perform music in the face of death? As Viktor Ullmann wrote: “We did not simply sit down by the rivers of Babylon and weep but evinced a desire to produce art that was entirely commensurate with our will to live”. Most of the music heard here is not known outside of specialist circles, but what lifts it out of the ordinary is the human saga behind it.

Anne Sofie von Otter, Bengt Forsberg and Daniel Hope endured that the people behind the music came alive.

Ilse Weber’s music is charming, and touching, though not great art (though why should it have to be?). It is far more important to remember that she was a woman who volunteered to look after the many children in Terezín. When they were shipped off to Auschwitz-Birkenau she chose to go with them so they would not be alone. She was a mother herself, and had sent one of her sons away to safety. In “Und der Regen rinnt” she wonders how her child so far away is coping. The song is simple, but Otter’s intimate delivery lifted it beyond its limited musicality.

Karel Švenk’s “Všechno jde!” is known as the ‘Terezín March’ because it was sung so often. It is jolly, with a cheerful refrain (“Hey, life begins tomorrow”). The melody is simple and reinforced by accordion. Beforehand, Hope read the poem in English and emphasised the bitter irony in the words beneath the insouciant melody. There are references to the “thirty words” the prisoners were allowed to write in letters, and the final line is a stab in the heart: “At the ruins of the ghetto we will laugh.”

Popular music figured heavily in Terezín, singing songs from a happier past helped people remember better times. Thus, Emmerich Kálmán’s famous tune from the operetta “Gräfin Martiza” is transformed. The escapist ditty becomes a form of escape. The anonymous poet knows there is no way out but death, and as long as people sing his song, he will not be forgotten.

Many professional musicians were interned too, so some Terezín music is sophisticated, such as Richard Dauber’s Serenade for Violin and Piano. Composers like Ullmann, Schulhoff (a Communist, persecuted in Czechoslovakia after he escaped from Germany), Haas and Berman were already well-established with international reputations before World War II, and Hope and Forsberg released virtuosity from their music. Schulhoff’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, written in 1927, is an inventive piece in which piano and violin are just slightly out of step, generating taut energy – “We know we’re wrong when we are together”, quipped Hope. Far more ambitious was Schulhoff’s Sonata for Solo Violin, in which Hope’s technical excellence – he played the first two movements – served this music well.

Forsberg has played with Otter for many years. Berman’s “Reminiscences Suite” consists of pieces written between 1938 and 1945; four of the eight were played here. Few big-name pianists have this very dark work in their repertoire, but Forsberg showed just how persuasive these impressionistic miniatures are. The titles are horrific but Berman’s quiet response speaks of far greater sorrow than exaggerated excess, and Forsberg’s playing was incredibly moving.

Otter has long been a pioneer of unusual but important repertoire. It was she and Forsberg who spearheaded the new wave of interest in Scandinavian song in the 1980s, with her Grieg recordings being quite exceptional. She has also brought Stenhammer, Rangström and others into the mainstream, enriching the Art-song repertoire. Yet she has also had a feeling for music that bridges genres – her singing of Swedish Tango songs is full of exuberant panache – and it showed in the dignity she gave to the Ilse Weber songs. She was at her best in the lovely Ullmann and Haas songs, not least “Immer inmitten” by Ullmann to poems by his friend H. G. Adler (who saved the manuscripts when Ullmann was taken away to die). Bebe Risenfors was good support, playing accordion, guitar and bass with fluent ease.

Even more beautiful was “Beryozkele” in which Otter’s voice floated ethereally, her high tessitura exquisitely suited to this elusive song, its dark meaning concealed by the lyrical melody. For the Pavel Haas songs, she was able to use her talent for comedy, too. The “Seven Songs in Folk Style” are vignettes with distinctive individual character, and were made vivid with her expressive singing and body language. A peasant girl brags about her butch boyfriend who disposes of people he does not like, so Otter made the girl sound fierce, kicking one leg to emphasise the words. There was also mystery: the second song is about a pearl necklace found discarded on a bridge, and Otter’s voice softened to a whisper, holding the silence.

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