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HEGGIE: Out of Darkness

spacer Lynch, Larsen; Smith. Music of Remembrance, Miller. Texts. Naxos 8.559770

Recordings Out of Darkness Cover 914

Composer Jake Heggie and his longtime librettist Gene Scheer created the three exceptionally compelling works that comprise Out of Darkness on commission for Mina Miller and Music of Remembrance. The first two are companion pieces, drawing on the recollections and poetry of Holocaust survivor Krystyna Zywulska, née Sonia Landau. Zywulska was imprisoned in Auschwitz not for being a Jew, but for working for the resistance. She successfully hid her Jewish identity, but even after chronicling her experiences in Auschwitz in her 1946 memoir, she did not reclaim her religion until the late 1960s. While at Auschwitz, she was assigned a job taking inventory of the possessions of the new arrivals before they were sent to the gas chambers. The monodrama Another Sunrise depicts Zywulska attempting the fathomless task of trying to explain and come to terms with the emotional toll of what she witnessed. Caitlin Lynch’s rich, shimmering soprano shines with a resplendent inner light, brilliantly projecting the combination of fortitude and empathy that made Zywulska’s survival possible. The music is powerfully raw, searing at times, but allows for moments of sweetness, making soulful use of probing clarinet and poignant violin. It’s a powerful and painfully beautiful work, and between Miller’s virtuosic chamber ensemble and Lynch’s impassioned, multi-dimensional embodiment of Zywulska, it’s hard to imagine a better performance.

Zywulska’s experiences prompted her to write lyrics to popular songs and folk tunes that made their way through the camp from inmate to inmate. It was oral tradition by necessity — writing them down was too risky. For the song cycle Farewell, Auschwitz, which sets Scheer’s translations of Zywulska’s lyrics, Lynch is joined by mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen and baritone Morgan Smith; all three are superb. If Another Sunrise gives voice to the private torment of memory, Zywulska’s poetic observations allow Heggie a more extroverted approach. “Soldiers” moves from a mordant Weill-esque march to a hymn-like prayer, with the lyric “Shoulder to shoulder. Do not forget us when you get older.” Larsen is firm and fatalistic in the rebellious “In the Cards.” Also memorable is “Miss Ziutka,” a tightly harmonized trio depicting a prisoner’s attempts to forget her whereabouts through her meticulous attention to her assigned secretarial task. Only in the titular final song does the music take on a traditionally “Hebraic” flavor, which it does with triumph, before reprising the hymnal appeal for remembrance from the earlier “Soldiers.” 

The third cycle, For a Look or a Touch, leaves the world of Krystyna Zywulska and explores a lesser-traversed path of Holocaust remembrance: the persecution of homosexuals. The title is a reference to the only evidence the Nazis needed for incarceration, and the texts are based on journal entries by Manfred Lewin, a gay Berliner who perished in Auschwitz. His journal was preserved by his lover, Gad Beck, who fought for the resistance and survived. Smith sings with elegance and passion, particularly in “Golden Years,” a joyously ribald recollection of his happier days in the clubs of Berlin, and  “A Hundred Thousand Stars,” which ends with a touching and intimate farewell. “The Story of Joe” is a harrowing look at the special tortures reserved for gay prisoners. After that, what can there be but “Silence,” a wordless vocalise, movingly intoned by Smith, which brings home the perpetual challenge of putting words to the atrocities that occurred during this blot on human existence. spacer 

JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER

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