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Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
The Seven Deadly Sins [35:19]
Alabama Song [2:55]
The Ballade of Sexual Dependency/Die Ballade der Sexuellen Hörigkeit [2:37]
Bilbao Song [5:04]
Pirate Jenny/Seeräuber Jenny [4:34]
Bertolt Brecht, lyrics
Marianne Faithfull, voice
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Dennis Russell Davies
Recorded at Konzerthaus, Vienna on 5 June, 1997 and at Großer Sendesaal, Radiokulturhaus, Vienna on 9 February, 1998. DDD
BMG CLASSICS 82876 60872 2 [50:46]

 

When one thinks of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht one immediately thinks of cigarette smoke infested nightclubs lit by gaslight so prevalent in pre-war Berlin. The music and lyrics that these two men created epitomize that cabaret scene. They continually explore the darkness of man’s nature, the despair and the corruption of politicians, authorities, and individuals that seemed to surround and confront them at every turn. Alternatively, Marianne Faithfull is best known as a folk-rock singer from the idealized and idyllic London scene of the late 1960s. While at first glance it may seem an odd pairing, it very quickly becomes evident that Faithfull is perfectly suited to perform Weill’s works. Her life and career, even in her youth, struck a chord with the music’s melancholy. Her very first recorded words were "This is the evening of the day. I sit and watch the children play, smiling faces I can see but not for me, I sit and watch as tears go by." By the age of 21 she was a drug addict who had nearly killed herself through barbiturates overdose. Throughout the 1970s she lived on the fringes of humanity until finally she was able to rehabilitate herself in the late 1980s. She participated in the rebirth of "The Three Penny Opera" in 1992, and evidently found a voice kindred to her own.

These selections in translation, are all examples of the dark humor and severe disillusionment that Faithfull obviously understands so well. The Seven Deadly Sins was originally commissioned in 1933 as a dance work with choreography by George Balanchine. Weill’s works had been dismissed as "degenerate" by the Nazis so he was working in Paris. Brecht agreed to write the words for Weill on condition that he was allowed to expose the corruption of the individual in a capitalist society. The resulting music is among the most darkly satirical ever written. It depicts the story of a young woman who goes to America in order to earn money for her family to build a house. The irony is largely derived from how she decides to accomplish her goals. As Anna travels from city to city men are seduced, blackmailed, robbed, and driven to suicide. Thus, in the end, the deadliest of sins is capitalist ambition from which even the most virtuous of goals can be subverted and from which all other sins can be derived. However, in capitalist society, these sins are rewarded with success.

Additional irony is also exemplified through the disparate nature of the critical texts and the light music. This tends to emphasize Anna’s conflicted human frailties and troubled psyche. One can see that this is also a reason for the continued success of these pieces. It is difficult to imagine a more effective way to criticize so effectively as to coat the bitter pill in sugar-sweet pop hooks.

The other selections are all songs which similarly celebrate the failures of humanity. Alabama Song is probably most well known as it was performed by Jim Morrison and The Doors. As the singer travels from one whisky bar to another, they celebrate their own imminent death and the futility of their own existence. The Ballade of Sexual Dependency explains how Mack the Knife is able to be arrested, not once but twice, and still get away with spitting in the eyes of the rich. Bilbao Song is a disparate juxtaposition of idyllic nostalgia and alcohol-soaked proletariat misery. Pirate Jenny is simply a celebration of money-lust, depravity and mayhem.

Stylistically these works reflect that uniquely German version of cabaret jazz so indicative of 1930s Berlin. There are elements of the great German traditions of earlier periods intermingled with the American sounds of jazz that were being imported at the time. In portions of The Seven Deadly Sins, the cabaret disappears completely and we are in the realm of the operetta. At other times, we are listening to a small jazz combo. There are moments when Anna disappears and the chorus (here sung by members of Hudson Shad) takes over. This intentionally takes on the nature of a glee-club ensemble. Again, the texts are rich with caustic criticism of capitalism and dark humor.

It also must be noted that in the 1956 recording of The Seven Deadly Sins, which is the most well known, Lotte Lenya had the music transposed a fourth below the original key. Such a change could not help but dramatically alter the character of the piece. However, as the Sins had been written for her originally, this became the definitive recording. Since then it became very rare to hear the character of the original arrangements. On this recording, Marianne Faithfull took the authentic Parisian scores as her point of departure, but sings the melodies a full octave below the original. This returns the instrumental and chorus material to character, but retains the more familiar flavor of Anna’s vocals.

The other songs have been arranged to seamlessly follow The Seven Deadly Sins. The works are not dramatically altered, and the caustic quality of the texts fits perfectly. The only noticeable difference is that there ceases to be any interspersion of vocal material aside Ms Faithfull.

If one is only familiar with Faithfull’s early works, the edgy, hoarse, almost harsh voice that comes across will be surprising. It is perfect for this music and conveys the world-weariness and hard-earned knowledge the lyrics describe. When sung in German, these songs have an special abrasion in timbre derived from the language. As much of the sonic edge is removed when translated to English, the difference between her voice and Lotte Lenya’s quavery soprano or Ute Lemper’s icy alto is welcome. Faithfull’s interpretations sharpen the razor edge of these texts.

The most impressive thing about these recordings is the realization that Brecht’s translated texts paired with Weill’s cabaret sensibilities could be passed through a pop singer with such success. There is no Bobby Darin cheekiness here. Marianne Faithfull performs these works as if they were written for her. She is able to convey the disdain and antagonism of the texts perfectly. This album crosses boundaries and can easily be recommended to fans of rock sensibilities, jazz tonalities or musical theatre and operetta.

Patrick Gary



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