Thursday, 1 October 2009
Always in the midst of it
Even those of us who have long admired the integrity and wide-ranging artistry of the Terezin/Theresienstadt disc were rather astonished by the extended scope of last night's programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. One of my favourite and longest-lasting muses, Anne Sofie von Otter, had the musical intelligence and generosity to share her tribute very equally with her long-term pianist, the quirky and likeable Bengt Forsberg, and the man whom I'd already marked down as one of the world's top violinists when I heard him play the Britten Concerto, Daniel Hope (and how he merited that title yesterday evening). Bebe Risenfors was there for support, but where would some of the numbers have been without his sensitive guitar accompaniment or his double bass 'n cymbals double act?
But this was not about first-class performers showing off. It was a totally integrated and beautifully shaped homage to the sheer vitality and the many musical possibilities discovered by those extraordinary human beings caught in the hell of the Nazis' show-camp. Like this concert, they refused to succumb to sombre lamentation. As inmate Viktor Ullmann put it, 'we did not simply sit by the rivers of Babylon and weep but evinced a desire to produce art that was entirely commensurate with our will to live'.
'Always in the midst of it', as runs H G Adler's text for a turbulent Ullmann song new to me, the Theresienstadters could parody the sentimental, touch on the gift to be simple and also produce some truly great music. One could weep at but not wallow in the elementary songs of the courageous Ilse Weber, the children's nurse who insisted on accompanying her charges to Auschwitz. What Anne Sofie tactfully, or maybe to steel herself, did not mention before the final Lullaby was that eyewitnesses report Weber singing it to the children in the gas chamber. Von Otter ended it on the merest sliver of sound. But she could also pull off the pants-kicking exuberance in the last of her selection from Pavel Haas's Folk Style Songs, the complexity of the Ullmann settings and the showbiz panache of the inmates' wry rewording of a song from Kalman's Countess Maritza. Here's a recent shot of the lovely lady by Mats Baecker.
Forsberg, too, had his time in the sun, if that's the right way of putting it, and in any case his twists to the songs were always striking. He deserves a photo, too. This one is by Mona Bjorklund.
He conveyed the full anger of the second movement from Haas's Suite for Piano and did his best with Berman's Reminiscences (though for me these were the only pieces in the evening where the musical substance didn't live up to the programmatic aims). He also worked in fierce focus with Hope to sear our souls in the second movement of Schulhoff's Second Sonata. Here's the great white Hope of British violinists as snapped by Felix Broeder for DG.
The biggest coup of the evening was to follow two movements from the same composer's Solo Violin Sonata with the Siciliano from Bach's Fourth Violin Sonata. Something of the sort would have to appear on a putative second CD from the same team (and there's easily enough material to make it worthwhile). This was balm to us, of course, but a reminder of the air from another planet for the inhabitants of the model ghetto during those extraordinary recitals where Bach, like many of the new pieces, would have symbolised, as Ulrike Migdal's supremely eloquent note put it, 'their adherence to a European cultural tradition from which their persecutors sought to expel them'. Though it's curious, too, that many of the most integrated, like anthroposophist Ullmann, rediscovered their Jewish roots in Terezin.