Concert Review

Berlin to Broadway: The Music of Kurt Weill, Barbican Centre, London14-16 January 2000, BBC in association with the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc.

For the BBC to devote their annual composer weekend to Kurt Weill makes sense: 2000 being both the centenary of his birth (March 2) and the 50th anniversary of his death (April 3). Moreover, the appreciation of his music has now reached a point where the range of works on offer could be absorbed with a ready understanding of the volatile context in which they emerged.

Weill is, of course, a theatre composer first and foremost. Each of the three evenings featured stageworks representative of his thinking during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s respectively. Friday's double-bill opened with Der Protagonist, the 25-year-old composer's striking and provocative operatic debut. Like Hindemith's slightly earlier Das Nush-Nushi, the influence of Busoni's icy Arlecchino is evident. Weill's one-acter lacks comparable dramatic focus and human insight, but its take on the interpenetration of the stage and the 'real world' came over strikingly, especially in the two mimed episodes, whose racy theatricals and orchestral brilliance justify the indulgences elsewhere.

Though written barely a year later, Royal Palace inhabits a less heated, more translucent sound world, at least on the basis of Gunther Schuller's resourceful 1971 orchestration of the surviving vocal score. The opening bell-like sequences make a riveting effect, and if this surreal fable of disillusion lacks dramatic momentum, the heroine's rejection of the material world, subsequent drowning and reincarnation, the latter to a hypnotic tango-cum-pavane rhythmic motion, have a clarity and dramatic truth that Weill would soon hone to perfection in his collaborations with Brecht.

I was unable to attend Saturday evening's performance of Arms and the Cow, but gather it was a distinctive satire; its humour laced with irony at a musical as well as textual level. A pity then that The Firebrand of Florence, whose European premiere closed the festival, was comparatively anodyne. This 1944 send-up, akin to the Benvenuto Cellini legend that Berlioz tackled so memorably a century before, was enjoyably rumbustious, allowing the Anglo-American cast plenty of opportunities to milk Ira Gershwin's inventive wordplay. Yet the almost two hour musical lacked the dynamic pacing of Lady in the Dark, or the dramatic depth of Street Scene. Nor was there a 'big tune' worthy of the name, although the Duchess's numbers, despatched with gusto by Felicity Palmer, came close. While acknowledging its place in the Weill canon, there can surely be little reason to revive this work in future.

The remaining concerts featured a wealth of orchestral, chamber and choral music. Although the former two categories scarcely occupied Weill after 1925, his contribution lacks nothing in conviction. While the early Cello Sonata and B minor String Quartet are little more than gifted student efforts, the 1923 String Quartet integrates form and expression with breathtaking dynamism, and was grippingly played by the Chilingirian Quartet. Along with the elegiac, though restrained song-cycle Frauentanz (1922) and the searing Recordare (1924) for unaccompanied choir, this is the striving, earnest young Weill at his best. The Second Symphony from 1933-4, its nervous energy and tensile lyricism enhanced by the clarity of its formal thinking, remains a tantalising example of what Weill could have given the orchestral repertoire, had the critical response and cultural circumstances dictated otherwise.

A special word for the choral concert on Sunday afternoon. Although Weill's vocal writing is unmistakable, it can easily sound ungrateful without scrupulous attention to balance and dynamics. Such was evident in Stephen Jackson's perceptive performances, whether in the uncompromising 'cry from the street' of 1927's Berlin Requiem, the gripping and often moving reportage of The Lindbergh Flight - how reassuring and 'human' that engine sounded! - and the celebratory optimism of Trains Bound for Glory, skilfully adapted by the Weill scholar David Drew from a 1939 World's Fair pageant. Tenor Thomas Randle clearly relished the very different spirit of the three works, his singing assured and appropriate in each case.

Overall, however, it was Sir Andrew Davis who deserves most praise, carrying-off the lion's share of the conducting with typical enthusiasm, and offering yet further proof of the breadth of his musical sympathies during his 11 years with the BBCSO. Weill's output remains difficult to assess and impossible to compartmentalise, but the present weekend will have done much to further interest in this fascinating and provocative composer.

Richard Whitehouse

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