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Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Symphony No. 1 (1921) [26:50]
Symphony No. 2 (1933-34) [29:40]
Lady in the Dark - Symphonic Nocturne (arr. Robert Russell Bennett) (1940) [17:32]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded at the Lighthouse Concert Hall, Poole, UK 12-14 January 2004.
NAXOS 8.557481 [74:02]


While Kurt Weill’s contribution to music for the stage is certainly well known, it is a sad fact that his works for the concert platform are restricted to his early years as a composer, and do not make up the most remembered or performed part of his output. The ever-adventuresome Marin Alsop and her Bournemouth Symphony have set about in this recording to restore some of Weill’s symphonic pieces to the repertoire, and we as listeners are all the better for it. In her typically outstanding fashion, Maestra Alsop has given us exemplary performances of Weill’s two symphonies and a suite of music intended for a collaborative musical theater project with Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin - pretty good company, I would venture.

The so-called “second symphony” (neither work was given a number by the composer) was a product of Weill’s study in the late 1920s with famed pedagogue Ferruccio Busoni, who had sent the younger composer off to work with his sometimes assistant Philipp Jarnach. Although earlier serious works had been well received, with orchestral pieces being performed by no less than the Berlin Philharmonic, the rise to power of the Third Reich in 1933 effectively eliminated any chance for Weill’s music to get a performance in his homeland. After his departure for Paris, the symphony was premiered by Bruno Walter in both Amsterdam and New York, and it received luke-warm reviews at best. After these unsuccessful first performances, it languished on library shelves until the 1970s when it finally began to see appearances on symphony programs.

One must indeed wonder why so fine a composition was so poorly received. Structurally tight, fascinatingly orchestrated and full of both melodic and rhythmic interest, it is without question a very worthy work, if perhaps not the kind of masterpiece that a Prokofiev or a Shostakovich may have created in the same time-frame. In a somewhat unusual gesture, Weill makes the middle movement the axle around which the entire work turns. With its central rhythmic gesture first introduced by the entire orchestra, and never straying too far from earshot, the movement also features a rather haunting trombone solo, somewhat startling on first hearing since the instrument seldom takes the soloist’s role in the most of symphonic canon. The final movement rips along jauntily, but in spite of its insistent rhythms, the entire symphony has a veil of darkness about it, perhaps the composer’s subconscious response to the pending doom in his homeland.

The Symphony No. 1 is a much more angular work, and is filled to the brim with ethereal melodies for the principal strings, and is punctuated with brassy, percussion-laden dissonances that jar one out of these reveries of melody. A youthful work, it shows tremendous skill and savvy on the part of the twenty-one year old composer, and foreshadows the rather brooding, cynical nature of Weill’s stage works, produced after his move to the United States, and after the terrible years of the Nazi regime. Cast in a single movement, it is nonetheless divided into three distinct sections. Deadly serious, this music is obviously the work of a young artist trying to prove himself. There is no question that he succeeds.

The Symphonic Nocturne, culled from tunes from the stage show Lady in the Dark is a completely different kettle of fish from the two more serious and esoteric symphonies. Fraught with sweeping melody, Robert Russell Bennett helps to deliver a work worthy of a warm summer night at the Hollywood Bowl. A very sharp contrast to the other works on this program, Ms. Alsop was wise to include it as a bit of aural relief from the tense seriousness of the two symphonies.

Marin Alsop is in her customary top form throughout. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this conductor’s work is her careful attention to structure and pacing. I have yet to hear a performance under her baton that was anything less than rhythmically spot-on, and her sense of both tempo and rubato are nearly flawless. The Bournemouth Symphony seems to have become quite at home with American music (although this is expatriate stuff), first under Andrew Litton, and now carried on by Alsop. They play the serious works with determination and precision, the populist music with ease and grace.

Naxos continue to astound with their dedication to expansion of the repertoire, and this disc is yet another jewel in their crown. Long may ‘ole Klaus’ and his merry band of musical ambassadors live. Tutti bravi! Add this one to your collection soon.

Kevin Sutton







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