sat 19/10/2019

Theresienstadt, von Otter, Queen Elizabeth Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Theresienstadt, von Otter, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Theresienstadt, von Otter, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Anne Sofie von Otter in bitter-sweet journey to Theresienstadt

Theresienstadt was the Nazis’ most successful PR exercise. Described as a “Jewish settlement” for the preservation and propagation of the Arts, this Czech outpost turned concentration camp housed virtually the whole of the Jewish cultural elite. Inmates called it an anthill, a “Garden of Eden in the middle of Hell”. But the Nazis insisted that cultural freedom was encouraged, even cultivated, here. This was no concentration camp, rather a transit camp. Even the International Red Cross was taken in. Actually it was death’s waiting room. And while they waited, they wrote, they played, they sang.

Anne Sofie von Otter and friends have been touring their chatty, informal concert of the album remembering and honouring the inhabitants of Theresienstadt. And as they have journeyed, the layers of bitter-sweet irony have doubtless intensified. Here in the Queen Elizabeth Hall the weathered faces of those for whom the memories were perhaps a little more immediate gave nothing away as folksy fiddle (Daniel Hope) and piano accordion (Bebe Risenfors) struck up their mordant strains. One jolly song was called Anything Goes! but Cole Porter it was not and I doubt anyway that even he could have laughed in the face of death quite so defiantly. And we laughed, too, at the Charleston-inflected showstopper from Emmerich Kalman’s hit operetta Countess Maritza given the Terezin spin (as in pithy new lyrics) and delivered with thigh-slapping aplomb by von Otter.

What a contradiction she is, this classy and perceptive artist who in her floral jacket and sensible pants you might easily pass by shopping in Marks and Spencer. Tall and long-necked and un-airbrushed she looks so ordinary and sounds so extraordinary. You watch her deliver a song like Always in the midst of it where the bitter repetitions of the title acquire a venom and abandon vocally that barely registers physically. Where, you wonder, does the hall-filling cry of pain in the pay-off line of Bright Venus (both by Viktor Ullmann) come from?

One amazing aspect of the Theresienstadt saga is that music banned by the National Socialists was cynically given free reign in the camp. Erwin Schulhoff, here enjoying the passionate advocacy of Daniel Hope, was always going to threaten the emotional pygmies with its Bartokian defiance and decadent hothouse lyricism. Hope gave movements from two of his sonatas and his smouldering G-string ascents were gloriously and dangerously uninhibited.

The real tears were shed last. Von Otter and her longtime accompanist Bengt Forsberg performed a lullaby Wiegala by Ilse Weber. She nursed the children at Theresienstadt and when the time came for them to board the train for Auschwitz she insisted she went with them. She never returned. In the last line of the song – “How silent is the world!” - von Otter tapered the sound to barely a whisper. The lost children would no more stir, no more be heard.

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