Music Composed in Concentration Camps

Francesco Lotoro (piano) and friends

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Francesco Lotoro, that tireless collector of music composed in prison (primarily concentration camp) environments, features prominently here in the role of both solo pianist and accompanist.


Rudolf Karel will not be widely known as composer so it is thanks to the dedication of Lotoro that works such as Karel’s Nonet opus 43 are recorded here. It’s in the form of a reconstructed piano score.

Karel studied both music and law in what is now the Czech Republic. He happened to be holidaying in Stavropol in Russia when World War I broke out and he was arrested on suspicion of being an Austrian spy – but he managed to escape.

Later, back in Prague, Karel taught at the city’s Conservatorium but during World War II he was arrested again, this time by the Gestapo. He continued to compose in prison and a friendly warder supplied him with sheets of toilet paper stuck one on top of the other to enable them to be written on and these compositions were smuggled out of the camp. He died in Theresienstadt.

In this piano version, the outer movements of Karel’s Nonet are played with immense authority by Lotoro whose performance makes for riveting listening. The movements come across as utterances of hand-wringing anguish, a barely contained hysteria. It is disturbing, at times menacing, music – and this interpretation is in the most positive sense, remarkable. It reaches out and seizes the attention in a vice-like grip.

Music by French composer Emil Goue makes up the rest of the CD. Goue taught physics at a grammar school in Bordeaux. He also studied composition with Koechlin and Roussel. For much of the war, Goue was a POW in oflag Nienburg am Weser, a prison camp for army officers in Lower Saxony, Germany where he worked tirelessly.

Lotoro’s account of the Prelude, Choral and Fugue holds the attention throughout. Note clusters in the Choral call the music of Messiaen to mind – and in the Fugue, Lotoro brings fluency and accuracy to give point and meaning to its contrapuntal intricacies.

In Goue’s Prelude, Aria and Finale, the first movement opens with dramatic, confrontational, arresting measures before giving way to much more introspective moments. There is an intense, introverted quality to the Aria – and stark, stabbing figurations are a feature of the Finale.

In three songs by Goue, Lotoro is a first rate accompanist to soprano Libera Granatiero’s singing. In selections which, for the most part, focus on melancholy, Granatiero’s interpretative skills are well to the fore, the overall impression enhanced by quite beautifully conceived accompaniments played by Lotoro.

Goue made it back home to Paris after the war but died tragically soon thereafter from an illness contracted in prison camp.

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