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Wandering through Theresienstadt

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Terezín | Theresienstadt, A. S. von Otter, B. Forsberg, C. Gerhaher, G. Huber, D. Hope, B. Risenfors, I. Hausmann, P. Dukes, J. Knight

(released March 25, 2008)
Deutsche Grammophon 477 6546
One of the best discs to cross my desk last year was a selection of music by composers imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, recorded by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and friends. Thursday night's concert of some music from the disc, along with other selections, with von Otter, pianist Bengt Forsberg, and violinist Daniel Hope was one of the first dates marked on my calendar. Sadly, in spite of multiple reliable recommendations, the Music Center at Strathmore was disappointingly half-empty. True, the audience was about the size of the normal house of the Vocal Arts Society, who co-sponsored the concert, and perhaps one of their regular smaller venues would have been a better fit for this somewhat unfamiliar and somber program. Unfortunately, it was also one of the worst behaved audiences in recent experience: seldom have such coughing, snorting, talking, mobile device ringing, candy unwrapping, and plastic bag crinkling (my new bête noire -- ushers should be instructed to seize them at the doors) disturbed my peaceful listening.

As expected, the songs sung by Christian Gerhaher were not included, and parts contributed by other instruments (the melancholy accordion of Bebe Risenfors and klezmer clarinet of Ib Hausmann were missed most) were covered by Hope's violin, if at all. This left several of the most powerful songs from the recording, sung with the same simplicity and intensity by von Otter's always expressive voice. The most emotionally devastating were the folk-like songs by Ilse Weber (1903-1944), who served as a nurse in the Theresienstadt ghetto and performed her own poems and songs, accompanying herself on a guitar. These pieces are little more than nursery rhymes, but given the context of their creation, von Otter and Forsberg treat them with utter seriousness, giving them space and delicacy, often so sotto voce that one wondered how well they could be heard in the upper tiers. Two of her songs framed the program perfectly, with Ich wandre durch Theresienstadt capturing the hopelessness of imprisonment (to the song's final question, "When shall we again be free," the answer in most cases was only in death) and the lullaby Wiegala (reportedly sung by Weber to her child charges in the gas chamber at Auschwitz) evoking the comforting hush of death at the end.

Other Articles:

Mark J. Estren, Honoring Works Created in the Darkest of Places (Washington Post, May 2)

David Mermelstein, A Sensibility That Embraces ABBA and the Holocaust (Wall Street Journal, April 29)

Chris Slattery, Song of the human spirit (Maryland Gazette, April 29)
Again as on the recording, von Otter and Forsberg exposed the gallows humor and grim happiness of the "Terezín March" by Karel Švenk (1917–1945), Všechno jde!, and the anonymous contrafactum set to an operetta tune by Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953) as the Terezin–Lied, which von Otter described as something like the national anthem of the prisoners. The combination of light-hearted theater tune and the indignities suffered in the camp is wickedly ironic: as the poem resolutely says, in a sort of motto, "we take life just as it comes." Daniel Hope played the sonata for solo violin by Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942) that is on the recording, although it left his tone, sometimes more savage and raw than refined, exposed in infelicitous ways. Far better was a new discovery, the same composer's later sonata for violin and piano, in which Schulhoff did not face the handicap of writing only for the single instrument, as well as two lovely Schulhoff songs with violin and piano that revealed more of the composer's coloristic abilities.

There was a set of songs by Pavel Haas (1899–1944) on the recording, but instead we heard this composer's suite for piano, op. 13, and selections from a different set of songs, Sedm Pisni V Lidovém Tónu, op. 18. It was only with these songs that Haas's dependence on his teacher, Leoš Janáček, became really clear, with a similarly speech-like freedom of rhythm and reliance on folk styles, if no actual folk quotations. The only composer on the program to survive the Holocaust, Karel Berman (1919-1995), was represented by some pleasing selections from what Forsberg described as a "musical diary," a suite of pieces called 1938-1945 Reminiscences. That such an evening of musical beauty could have come this place of horrible suffering is as remarkable as it seems unlikely.

The remaining recitals on the Vocal Arts Society season will feature mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená (May 6, 7:30 pm) and baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes (May 12, 7:30 pm). The last free concert in the VAS Art Song Discovery Series will present soprano Laura Stuart and baritone Steven Combs, with pianist R. Timothy McReynolds at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center (May 11, 6 pm).

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