Sweden was notoriously neutral in World War II, but mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter’s father, who was in its diplomatic corps, tried to report to the Swedish government concentration camp atrocities of which he was informed. Now his daughter has toured the United States and Europe with a recital that pays homage to her father’s efforts and to the lives and art of the Nazis’ victims. Her program shared some material with her 2007 award-winning DG recording, “Terezin-Theresienstadt”.
The Germans cynically presented the Czech war camp, Terezin (Theresienstadt in German) north of Prague, as a model artistic community with performances and extra food for the prisoners—but only during Red Cross inspections. Meant for 6000 people, the camp housed ten times that many, of which 25% died and yet more were shipped to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The birth dates of composers on Von Otter’s program differ, as do the styles and mood of the pieces, but the death dates are mostly 1944. Copyright dates were mostly 2007, so this tour represented first performances.
At her New York Zankel Hall recital in early May, Von Otter was joined by Bengt Forsberg (her regular pianist), violinist Daniel Hope, and cellist Daniel Müller-Schott. They took turns introducing the pieces and showed a moving desire to put across the material rather than their own personalities. Some of their spoken translations were livelier than the ones printed in the word sheets.
Musical styles varied but were all familiar. Ilse Weber, an imprisoned poet who became a children’s nurse in Terezin, composed the sweet Schubertian ‘Ich Wandre durch Theresienstadt’, a simple melodic expression of longing, in the same spirit as her ‘Und der Regen Rinnt’, a minor-key lament accompanied by violin.
Among Terezin prisoners whose music surfaced later was Viktor Ullmann, a Schoenberg student whose works, discovered in the 1980s, are entering the mainstream. In addition to Ullmann’s mournful ‘Birch Tree’ from Three Yiddish Songs, two arts songs in French and one in German represented a peculiar fach that could be described as German impressionism. Von Otter’s laid-back manner and delicate tone, sustained and clear, evoked Joan Baez and Judy Collins.
Ullmann’s songs, performed before intermission, all ended with a statement of the singer’s misery—for example, “I must cry aloud in pain the whole night through.” While most of the evening’s texts expressed suffering, the mournful and wistful music had a notable absence of ferocity or outrage. Even two Chasidic Dances by Zikmund Schul, arranged for violin and cello, were reflective and without the gutsy ebullience of Fiddler on the Roof. Circumstances did not encourage outbursts—nor did the prisoners dare.
Other selections were by Edwin Schulhoff (who died in a Bavarian camp) and Pavel Haas—composers whose reputations have recently expanded. Schulhoff’s somber, transparent Violin Sonata No. 2, with funereal piano beats, and his Duo for Violin and Cello, with the ending of its movements drifting up into the stratosphere, cast off his background as a jazz pianist and student of Debussy. A Haas group “in folk style” displayed Forsberg’s keyboard command and ranged from seductiveness to musical scenery-chewing.
Weber’s ‘Wiegala’, a lullaby performed by all four musicians, made a heartrendingly appropriate conclusion. Von Otter translated the encore, a pop waltz by Adolf Strauss, as ‘Hope we’ll see each other again’. They didn’t.