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Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Royal Palace. Opera in one Act Op.17 (1925-26)
Dejanira – Janice Watson (soprano)
The Husband – Stephen Richardson (bass-baritone)
Yesterday’s lover – Ashley Holland (baritone)
Yesterday’s Admirer – Richard Coxon (tenor)
The Young Fisherman – Timothy Robinson (tenor)
The Old Fisherman – Jeremy White (bass)
Solo Soprano – Camilla Tilling (soprano)
BBC Singers (women’s voices)
Der Neue Orpheus. Cantata for Soprano, Violin and Orchestra Op.16 (1925)
Kathryn Harries (soprano)
Michael Davies (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
Recorded live at the Barbican, London, January 2000
CAPRICCIO 60 106 [54.19]


Weill’s Royal Palace is an important work in his theatrical development but is still little known. In fact so little that this is apparently the world premiere recording and derives from a performance given by BBC forces at the Barbican in 2000. There was a vogue for the zeitoper at the time – mid twenties – when Weill set the one act opera to a text by Iwan Goll. The topical opera genre informed the work of Hindemith and Krenek as well as Weill and in his work we can hear those musical and popular currents that fed the syntax of the opera with such informality; car horns, saxophones, demotic language. The vernacular – the use of foxtrot and jazz elements - extends to the musical writing which, alongside such anti-authority devices does certainly embrace a broadly Wagnerian-Mahlerian frame of reference, though in its tarter writing the influence of Stravinsky certainly seems unavoidable – specifically A Soldier’s Tale.

This may seem an unlikely brew and the essentially static or mythic-allegoric nature of the characterisation may seem almost anti-theatrical. But if Osud can work there’s no reason why this shouldn’t – in fact they’d make a good pairing. Set in a luxury hotel Dejanira (in myth the wife of Hercules, who caused his death unwittingly and killed herself) spends time with her husband and a past lover and future one. Their failure to understand or comprehend her – their absurd bribes and braggadocio – leads her to drown herself. Weill utilises a ballet scene and a "film" scene – the former suggestively percussion laced with trumpet and clarinet to the fore and a ragtime feel, laced with trappings of the dance-jazz style that swept Berlin at the time. Instrumentally Mahler is most clearly evoked in the string writing of Wir müssen aber Orangeade trinken [track 3] and there’s an eerie foreshadowing (almost) of Peter Grimes in the scene where the Old Fisherman talks with Dejanira. In that film interlude Weill cannily uses a "piano accompaniment" (such as you’d have heard in silent films) to lace the score with yet another layer of topicality – along with blaring trumpets and rinky-dink woodblock percussion. There is a beautiful moment of evanescence later – twinkle of bells, starlight – as the saxophone mourns and a tango rhythm as Dejanira "walks on the water" to drown.

Coupled with Royal Palace is Der Neue Orpheus, a small cantata for soprano, violin and orchestra, written just before the one act opera. It’s a tougher, more astringent work and written in Weill’s rather brittle post-Schoenbergian terms. Punchy, wordy with march rhythms and powerful brass this also occupies mythic ground. The text is again by Goll and concerns Orpheus’ arrival into contemporary Berlin where he meets Eurydice at a railway station. Part of the fabric of the writing is to include some quotations – from Gluck (obviously) but also from the Pilgrims’ Chorus in Tannhäuser. The violin solo enters at the halfway point – this cantata lasts just over a quarter of an hour – and seems to have some soloistic relation, at least, to the Violin Concerto. It’s a much more concentrated, serious and less immediately appealing work than its disc mate.

These are both concert performances and the teams sound very well prepared. Everything is sung in German by the English cast. Janice Watson takes the greatest vocal burden in Royal Palace – strong, powerful, theatrically instinctual and managing to get it across (not always very easy textually) though also tending to be a little shrill at the top of her compass. In the companion work Kathryn Harries has an even bigger voice than Watson and Michael Davis, the BBC’s leader, makes a fine show. Andrew Davis conducts idiomatically and marshals with practised authority – not for nothing was he at Glyndebourne and now in Chicago. The Barbican acoustic is not too sympathetic, and there are the odd acoustical shifts in perspective. But this is a valuable disc with premiere recordings, pretty reasonable documentation and dual language (German-English) libretto.

Jonathan Woolf

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