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Music for the odd Weill

Purcell Room
10/03/1999 -  

Purcell Room
3 October 1999
Kurt Weill Broadway songs
Kim Crisswell (soprano), Wayne Marshall (piano)

Queen Elizabeth Hall
4 October 1999
Kurt Weill Der Jasager, The 'Happy End' Music
Susan Bickley (mother), David Barrell (teacher), Edward Burrowes (boy), Shuler Hensley, Nick Holder, Jenna Russell, Madeleine Worrall Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
London Sinfonietta, New London Youth Choir

Queen Elizabeth Hall
10 October 1999
Kurt Weill The Threepenny Opera
Wolf Kahler (narrator), Bernd Fröhlich (Macheath), Sona MacDonald (Polly), Petra Lamy (Mrs Peachum), Timna Brauer (Jenny), Jürgen Holtz (Mr Peachum) HK Gruber (Ballad singer/Tiger Brown), Winnie Böwe (Lucy) HK Gruber (conductor)
Ensemble Modern, Exmoor Singers

Kim Criswell began her cabaret evening in the Purcell Room with an upbeat medley from Love Life and Lady in the Dark, then joked that she hoped she hadn't scared the audience, who were probably expecting "Pirate Jenny". But there is very little obscure Weill these days. Criswell and Wayne Marshall delivered an entertaining set of standards from Weill's American years, including a version of "I'm a stranger here myself" from One touch of Venus that was incomparably less demented than Ute Lemper's but no less perplexed. They also included the title song from Lost in the stars, a moving expression of existential rather than erotic perplexity, a couple of less familiar numbers from Love life and The firebrand of Florence, and a recently rediscovered song, "Your technique". The songs are all winners. Although Criswell apologised for some of the performances being less polished, she and Marshall can put over any song imaginable. But as she also commented, the shows are at best intellectually tough (Lost in the stars, based on "Cry the beloved country") or downright weird (most of the rest of them).

Weill's doubtful luck in his theatrical collaborations was highlighted in the concert on 4 October, which came closest to being a showcase for obscure material. Der Jasager is a grim morality, based on a Japanese Buddhist play in which the individual has to agree to be sacrified for the good of the community. Brecht and Weill wrote it as a straight moral fable for performance by students as well as for their edification, and were distressed when the message was praised by conservative critics. (One current reviewer asserted that the work is a satire on the Nazi plebiscite in which the German people famously said "Ja" to Hitler. It was actually taken at the time to be supporting what emerged as the Nazi idea.) Weill's through-composed score is coherent, austere and powerful, and the performance was striking. Edward Burrowes as the boy who accepts his inevitable death for the good of the community and its tradition was particularly effective. But even without hindsight the message is repugnant, and this one really is of only historical interest.

Happy End, in constrast, is an intractable mixture of good and bad. It was thrown together from nothing to follow up the success of The Threepenny Opera, but includes some stunning songs which have become standards, of which "Subaraya Johnny" is the most famous. But none of them have much to do with the plot, except to invoke an atmosphere of low life and fervid religion in strange communion. David Drew's concert version pulled out themes but ended in a fade of fragments which (perhaps by design) highlighted the shapelessness of the music. The London Sinfonietta played with plenty of energy, but the pretty good singers were perhaps too authentic in their specious Americanism (even though Shuler Hensley is American). Perhaps the main interest of Happy End is its foreshadowing in the "Sailors' Tango" of the boat imagery and the revivalist religion of "Sit down, you're rocking the boat" from Guys and Dolls.

The Threepenny Opera, given an electrifying performance by Ensemble Modern on 10 October, stands on its own. Brecht hadn't quite got the Marxist religion when he wrote the text, and he had the sense (impelled by a bluff that he had a work in progress) to take Gay's Beggar's opera and change its structure only slightly. Weill's music is more original than Pepusch's. After a baroque overture and a rework of "Through all the employments of life", there are only a couple of parodies -- an operatic aria for Lucy, cut from the original performance and finally performed by Kim Criswell ten years ago -- and a Lutheran chorale summing up the satire on conventional religion at the end. The rest are exuberant cabaret songs that reproduce the dramatic force of their counterparts in The Beggar's Opera, and like the originals are often romantic in a way that cuts straight across the satire. It is difficult to know what to make of The Threepenny Opera, but also difficult not to enjoy it.

HK Gruber described himself in a pre-concert talk as a lover of Weill rather than an expert, but his enthusiasm brought out the best in an outstanding ensemble and cast. (He also said that Lotte Lenya was an honorary Viennese, and seems to imply that his Viennese accent was as good as a Berlin one for performing Brecht/Weill!) The Ensemble Modern used some period instruments, including a Hawaiian guitar, a sort of loud, wobbly zither, and the right sort of cymbals. But their real achievement was both to distinguish and to integrate every last detail of the music, with its bizarre interchange of voices and sounds, and to find an off-the-beat focus that never quite disintegrated, in a way which recalled strongly the earliest recorded versions.

The fine German-based cast came close to a similar authenticity, although they were amplified unlike the original performers. Bernd Fröhlich as Macheath particularly sounded like a sinister matinee idol, smoothing his melodies but spitting out his consonants. Sona MacDonald as Polly and Winne Böwe as Lucy had a brilliant cat-fight, and Böwe also had a great time with the aria.

H.E. Elsom



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