Anne Sofie: Resurrected

On her latest disc, the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter pays homage to the extraordinary music and spirit of the inmates of the Terezin concentration camp, says Michael Church
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The hurried pencil drawings are eloquent. One is of a café, with smartly dressed people listening to a three-piece band. But there are no drinks on the tables, there's a soldier on duty outside, and everyone has dead eyes. There's more life in the portraits done by an opera librettist of his musical friends: they wear their clothes with rakish elegance, and are clearly in full creative flow. And there's one detail that these artists often include: a Star of David on the breast-pocket, bearing the word "Jude".

For this was the Jewish cultural élite from Prague, Vienna, and Brno, in the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin. Shortly after these graceful portraits were made, almost all of the sitters got the summons they had been fearing, and were trucked off for incineration in Auschwitz.

The Nazis hadn't planned this former garrison town as a cultural haven, but that was what its inhabitants turned it into when they started to arrive in 1941. Prevented by anti-Semitic legislation from attending plays and concerts in the outside world, they seized on the freedom their jailers gave them to stage their own.

In 1944, the Nazis made a propaganda film about Terezin entitled Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt ("The Leader Gives the Jews a Town"), in which they depicted the sick and starving residents as well-fed, carefree, and enjoying a life of civilised leisure. The centrepiece of this stomach-turning exercise was a children's opera entitled Brundibar, whose allegorical reference to tyranny was for some reason tolerated by the Nazis.

Much of the music written in Terezin perished in the flames, but enough has been preserved for us to realise that this defiant explosion of communal creativity was one of history's miraculous moments: no wonder today's musicians are both haunted and inspired by it. In the Nineties, under the ironical title Entartete Musik ("degenerate music"), Decca produced a CD series of the music suppressed by the Third Reich, most of which was by Terezin composers. Eight years ago, the British violinist Daniel Hope recorded a disc for Nimbus called Forbidden Music, in which he revealed yet more Terezin treasures.

Now, with a disc entitled Terezin/Theresienstadt – the latter being the official German name for Terezin – the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter joins the fray with a collection of songs written in (and often about) the camp; she's got Hope to contribute a performance of the Sonata for Solo Violin by Erwin Schulhoff, a Communist Jew who was the leading Czech composer of the pre-war period, and who, though he wasn't in Terezin, perished in another camp at the same time.

But to label Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas, and the august Viktor Ullmann as "Terezin composers" is to belittle them: these were the pre-eminent voices of Czech music in the Twenties and Thirties, and their abrupt disappearance left a gaping void in musical history. Krasa, the composer of Brundibar, is remembered on Von Otter's disc by "Three Songs after Rimbaud", also written in Terezin: these exquisitely turned examples of his terse, modernist style corroborate the promise of the music he wrote before nightmare appeared on the horizon.

Haas, whose music has the dreaminess of Janacek and the pared-down beauty of Bartok, divorced his non-Jewish wife to save her and their daughter from extinction, but when he was incarcerated fell into a paralysing depression. He was roused from this pit by the charismatic young pianist Gideon Klein, who thrust some home-made manuscript paper at him and begged him to compose once more. He is represented here by his haunting "Four Songs on Chinese Poetry", the first line of which reads "Your homeland is there, far away in the distance".

But the presiding musical genius at Terezin was the composer, conductor and critic Ullmann, whose reviews of prison-camp concerts were as eruditely astringent as any in civilian life. He is represented on Von Otter's CD by three settings of 16th-century French poems, and an exquisite Yiddish song entitled "Birch Tree".

But Ullmann is best known today for the remarkable opera he composed for the singers and players he had at his disposal in this place. Der Kaiser von Atlantis is an allegorical tale of tyranny overthrown, with a skewed parody of "Deutschland über alles", and a concluding chorale sung by the prisoners that stops the heart with its poignancy: "Come Death, our honoured guest/ Enter the chamber of our hearts/ Take from us life's pain and woe/ Lead us to rest after grief and sorrow." The production got as far as the first dress rehearsal, at which point most of the artists were murdered.

Von Otter loves Ullmann's songs, "but what moves me more are the so-called cabaret songs," she says. "These reflect what daily life was really like in Terezin." With the help of her producer Marion Thiem, she has unearthed songs that do indeed cut to the quick. Some are pure gallows humour, most notably an anonymous one with its sardonic refrain, "We love our little Terezin".

Only one song survived Carlo Sigmund Taube, "A Jewish Child", in which he lamented that his son would forever be set apart from his playmates: Taube was duly murdered with his wife and that son in 1944. Most moving are the songs by Ilse Weber, who sang them on her nightly rounds as a nurse: "Wiegala" is the lullaby she sang to the children she insisted on accompanying to the gas chamber.

Survivors of Terezin have observed that the experience paradoxically galvanised their creativity: citing Goethe – "Live in the moment, live in eternity" – Ullmann spelt this out in an extraordinary statement. In normal life, he wrote, the creation of beauty had been easy, "but this was the true school for masters". Despite multiple privations, including a shortage of instruments, "Theresienstadt has served to enhance, not impede, my musical activities... By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon... Our endeavour with respect to art was commensurate with our will to live."

On 16 October 1944, Ullmann and Krasa, a clutch of distinguished conductors, a jazz group called the Ghetto Swingers, and an army of top-flight singers and players all boarded a train. They were herded into the gas chambers when they reached their destination. Despite their will, they did not live, but their work lives on.

'Terezin/Theresienstadt' is out now on Deutsche Grammophon