Holzmair's Solemn Remembrance

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008

Familiar as it is, the tale remains poignant. The Nazis created the "model camp" of Theresienstadt in the present-day Czech Republic in 1941; to it, they deported the elderly and the cultural elite, and at one point built stage sets of stores and cafes to help show the Red Cross how well they were treating their Jews. Meanwhile, composers, musicians, artists and writers continued to create and perform in a mingled spirit of defiance and existential affirmation.

The tale resurfaces every so often, from stagings of Hans Kr�sa's opera "Brundibar" (performed in 1943 by the camp's children) to exhibitions like "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," a collection of children's drawings and poems from Theresienstadt. This spring, two singers are putting it into the spotlight. Released last month, the latest CD in the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter's seemingly inexhaustible contract with Deutsche Grammophon, "Terezin/Theresienstadt," brings together several artists, including baritone Christian Gerhaher and violinist Daniel Hope. On Tuesday night at the Austrian Embassy, baritone Wolfgang Holzmair presented his own selection -- also CD-length, and no doubt destined for a recording -- of Theresienstadt music, accompanied by pianist Russell Ryan.

That the two presentations are so different only indicates what a wealth of material is available. Ironically, the music of Theresienstadt may be better known today in Germany, where it crops up in commemorative concerts or as a subject of high school study, than in the States. Among its more familiar manifestations are the songs from the camp's popular cabarets, light and lightly sardonic (though given a ferocious bite through their context), of which von Otter's disc includes a healthy dose.

Holzmair, by contrast, selected only art songs for a program that matched his own dark intensity. He is by no means a conventional recitalist. Hunched over the music stand, peering at the music through his glasses, using a hand to make a point, and now and then glancing up to send a piercing expectant look into the audience, as if waiting for an answer, he resembled an eccentric schoolteacher, projecting some of the handsome nerdy earnestness of the young Warren Beatty.

His voice, in the smallish hall, kept bursting out at almost alarming volume, with a quality of aggressive anger that was appropriate in the context of the program, though sometimes startling in a specific song (like a wistful meditation on wild geese and homesickness in Pavel Haas's "Four Songs on Chinese Poetry," the one point of overlap with von Otter's CD).

The Czech language may have been partly responsible; in Holzmair's native German, his voice became more caressing and nuanced, probing the small-scale "Five Songs" by Kr�sa or the 12 lapidary vignettes of "Man and His Day," by Viktor Ullmann. Ullmann had the lion's share of the program (which also included Zikmund Schul's "What Never Was" and three poignant songs by Gideon Klein) and was certainly its biggest talent; his "Three Songs," beginning with a fierce rustic harvest song and ending with an angry swipe at hypocrisy and venality in a song about the Vatican's Swiss Guard, made for a climactic ending.

Binding the program's parts together were sections of the solo piano suite "Reminiscences (1938-1945)" by Karel Berman, who survived Theresienstadt. These were eight oddly light segments of simply written, programmatic music, progressing from "Youth" through "March 15, 1939 -- Occupation" and "Auschwitz -- Corpse Factory." One might expect, from a piece with the latter title, monstrosity and horror rather than the icy, light chords that opened it; this survivor's diary gave a human dimension to catastrophe, and showed how impossible it is for a single human to apprehend it.

But criticizing the music of Theresienstadt may not be the point: Some of it is quite good, but there is more about performing it than that.

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