Wigmore Hall’s director John Gilhooly is to be commended for conceiving this bold event. "After I saw Anita Lasker-Wallfisch's address to the Bundestag, I felt it had to be heard in London... This is such an important message to hear, as history has shown, time and again, that where anti-Semitism, racism and extreme views are on the rise, dark times are usually never far behind.“
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, herself a fine cellist, quite literally owes her life to music. She played in the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz for over a year ("As long as they wanted an orchestra, they couldn't put us in the gas chamber”) before being sent to Bergen-Belsen where astonishingly she survived until the day of liberation. After the war she married the pianist Peter Wallfisch. Their son Raphael played at this Wigmore gathering. The afternoon opened with three pieces sewn seamlessly together, two by Bloch, from his Baal Shem: Three Pictures of Chassidic Life, and Ravel’s ‘Kaddisch’ (from Deux mélodies hébraïques), all utilising Jewish melodies. Wallfisch has a striking stillness and integrity in his playing, the music speaking freely, with a rich attractive vibrato and here partnered with consummate sensitivity by John York. ‘Kaddisch’ was an object lesson in taste, the musicians avoiding any temptation to sentimentalise or overplay the lamentation. In Bloch’s ‘Nigun’ York painted in haunting orchestral colours, and Wallfisch’s expressive leaps conveyed almost a defiant joy or freedom in wandering.
Throughout, Lasker-Wallfisch, ninety-three this month, sat impassively and then spoke with eloquence of the “new and extremely worrying emergence of something we naively thought belonged in the past … since a right-wing and dangerous party is now part of the German government.” She then read an English translation of her words spoken at the Bundestag. The spellbound Wigmore audience reassuringly comprised a number of younger people, including some children. Lasker-Wallfisch spoke of her family, and her childhood in the years leading up to Kristallnacht. Of her time playing in the women’s orchestra, she said, “For many hearing music being performed in this living hell was the ultimate insult. For others, perhaps it was a chance to dream of another world, if only for just a few minutes”. With simplicity, she spoke of the occasions where there was “no space” in the crematorium for all the bodies. She went on, “many were thrown alive into the burning pits. This I have seen with my own eyes.” She implored us to “talk to each other, build bridges.”
There followed a ravishing account of Bloch’s ‘Prayer’ (the opening of From Jewish Life) which, prefaced as it was by Lasker-Wallfisch’s testimony, perhaps has never sounded as ruminative as it did here. Wallfisch and York concluded with an elegant transcription of movements from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s delightful incidental music to Much Ado About Nothing, a touching reminder that life, for all its tragedy, also contains comedy and hope.