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Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Symphony no.2 (1933-34) [29:40]
(1. Sostenuto – Allegro molto [9:47]; 2. Largo [13:10]; 3. Allegro vivace [6:43])
Symphony no.1 (1921) [26:50]
Lady in the Dark – Symphonic Nocturne (Concert Suite arr. Robert Russell Bennett) [17:32]
(1. Andante misterioso ‘My Ship’ [2:53]; 2. ‘Girl of the Moment’ [1:58]; 3. Bolero ‘This is New’ [3:46]; 4. Allegro alla Marcia [1:09]; 5. ‘Dance of the Tumblers’ [1:47]; 6. ‘The Saga of Jenny’ [5:58])
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Lighthouse Concert Hall, Poole, UK, 12-14 Jan 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557481[74:02]

If you are tempted to think of Kurt Weill as nothing more than a Sullivan to Bertolt Brecht’s Gilbert, and that his contribution to music starts and finishes with Mack the Knife, then I beg you to listen to this outstanding disc.

Here are two remarkable symphonies, written when the composer was in his twenties and thirties. As a ‘dessert’ (though not a sop!) we are also treated to a suite of his music from his Broadway musical Lady in the Dark, orchestrated in glorious technicolor by Robert Russell Bennett.

When he came to compose the Second Symphony, Weill already had the achievements of the operas Mahagonny and Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera) under his belt. There is little in the symphony, however, of the demotic flavour so successful in those operas. Though quite short, and in just three movements, this is a substantial and highly serious work. The first movement has an introduction in which a tense rising phrase, given out by the violins at the very start, gives way to a Mahlerian trumpet solo. In fact, the spirit of Mahler frequently hovers over this music, though Weill’s sense of scale is quite different; there are plenty of individual Mahler movements longer than this whole symphony.

The Allegro molto which follows alternates between driving motivic development and long winding lines in strings or woodwind – often of great expressive beauty. The central Largo – the longest of the three movements - builds up an overwhelming intensity at times. It has an almost funereal tread, and is dominated by the terse rhythmic pattern heard immediately at the outset (track 2). There are many memorable solo passages, particularly for cello near the beginning, and, a little later, a magnificent one for trombone - which I found simply solemn, not ‘mock-solemn’ as reported by Richard Whitehouse in his booklet notes.

I have to say at this point that the playing of the BSO on this disc is absolutely outstanding, to my ear the best they have yet achieved under Marin Alsop. She seems to be taking the orchestra from strength to strength, enabling them to turn in totally convincing performances of unfamiliar, demanding music such as this. Marin shapes and characterises the music with a sure hand, allowing it full expressive rein, but never exaggerating its gestures. The finale is enormous fun, and is the one place where the Weill of the stage works is closely felt – for example in the rollicking tune initiated by horns and woodwind (track 3, 0:58). This is hugely entertaining stuff, and a fitting conclusion to this small masterpiece – surely one of the outstanding 20th century symphonies.

The First Symphony is more of an apprentice work, having been composed when Weill was still in his early twenties and yet to complete his studies. Nevertheless, its one-movement plan is handled well by the young composer, and great structural impact is made by recurrences of the massive dissonant chords heard in the opening bars. What I found most fascinating to hear was the widely varying stylistic character of the music, from an atonality that brings it close to Schönberg and Berg, to an unbridled lyricism that foreshadows the later stage music - e.g. the great melody at track 4 10:05. The work may be too eclectic for its own good, but what an achievement for a twenty-one year old!

After all this rigour, the sweeping melodies and catchy rhythms of Lady in the Dark come as pure delight, though there is no sense of the composer ‘writing down’ here. Bennett’s orchestration is just fabulous, and Marin and her players do it full justice.

This whole CD, superbly performed and recorded, is typical of Naxos at its very best – a very special issue.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

see also review by Kevin Sutton



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