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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Die sieben Todsünden (1933) [33:57] (1)
Complainte de la Seine (1934) [03:11] (2)
Youkali (1935) [05:28] (2)
Nanna’s Lied (1939) [03:13] (2)
Wie lange noch? (1944) [03:28] (2)
Es regnet (1933) [02:59] (2)
Berlin im Licht-Song (1928) [01:53] (2)
Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano) (1, 2), Karl-Heinz Brandt, Hans Sojer (tenors) (1), Hidenori Komatsu (baritone) (1), Ivan Urbas (bass) (1), Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR/Cord Garben (1), Cord Garben (piano) (2)
rec. January 1992, NDR, Hanover
HARMONIA MUNDI HMA 1951420 [54:47]
 

“ The Seven Deadly Sins” was Weill’s last work written in Berlin and his last major collaboration with Bertold Brecht. In a sense it also marked the beginning of his exile for the first performance took place in Paris, with Lotte Lenya singing and Weill’s new young champion Maurice Abravanel conducting. Though coolly received at the time, the basic cantata form represents at its most developed his combination of classical formalism with parodied cabaret elements.
 
“ Kurt Weill in Exile” is the title of the excellent booklet essay and the remainder of the disc is given over to an all-too-brief recital of some of the songs he wrote during his first decade-or-so of exile, first in Paris and then in the United States.
 
For some ten years after Weill’s death his music kept a tenuous hold on the repertoire. The discovery that he was a great composer who had fixed for all time, and with deadly accuracy, a particularly painful moment in history, came much later. In these first years the torch was kept burning by his vocalist widow, Lotte Lenya, whose smoky tones and individual mixture of Sprechstimme and croaky singing was taken as definitive. Yet when a singer of a much later generation sought advice from the elderly Abravanel on how to interpret Weill, he was told firmly that back at that first performance in 1933, Lotte Lenya was a quite different singer. “She sang every note”, he repeated several times. Incidentally, I am quoting an interview from memory and cannot remember who Abravanel’s interlocutor was.
 
In other words, Lenya used these creative means, together with low tonalities, to disguise the fact that her voice was no longer quite what it used to be. Artistically, she got away with it, but she left a dangerous model. I suppose that even in 1933 Lenya would have sounded more of a “vocalist” than a “classically-trained singer”, yet I daresay that what we hear from Brigitte Fassbaender is not far off the mark. I will try to analyze what makes her so special when I deal with the solo pieces. For the moment, suffice to say that she is the star of the show, though the other singers are perfectly good. Cord Garben gets all the right sounds and atmospheres from the orchestra. It may be that he is a better musician than conductor since the ensemble is not always tight, but rather this than have everything neat but dead.
 
Trying to understand why I found the songs more affecting in these performances than I had ever found them before, I made a comparison with Malena Ernman, who included three of them on her recital “Cabaret Songs” (BIS CD 1154). I much admired Ernman, and I still do, yet I have to say that Fassbaender is something else again. It’s not just that she can strip paint with her chest voice, for Ernman can do that, too. I came to reflect that a characteristic of a certain type of light music – whether “real” or parodied – exploits regularly the effect of a long-held note at the end of a phrase which is left to vibrate and swell. This “opening-up” on a single note and somehow grabbing the listener emotionally by the collar is an effect that can be heard, in varying ways, from Edith Piaf to Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston. It is easier for the “vocalist” who sings into a microphone and uses it as a diaphragm than for classically trained singers who have to find the resources in their own bodies. Fassbaender can do it. In these moments Ernman fines away her tone into a sort of dulcet sweetness, without vibrato, rather similar to the modern idea of how baroque music should be sung. It has a fascination of its own, suggesting a cat-like, mysterious woman on tiptoe. But Fassbaender can grab you and involve you, so each song becomes a crescendo of emotion.
 
Another give-away is the two singers’ treatment of the spoken lines in Nanna’s Lied. Ernman sounds as if she would rather have sung them. With Fassbaender they are made the climax of each verse. She invests the whole thing with incredible spleen. Or hear the dirty snigger she gets into “accueill’ le fou”, another spoken line from “Complainte de la Seine”. The lesson is perhaps that for her, the interpretation is based on the words. She has a vocal technique which allows her to sing well anyway, but even as she is singing, her words have a “speaking” quality.
 
Fassbaender’s emotion-laden voice and psychological involvement was sometimes controversial in “straight” classical music, though no one ever found her dull. These qualities seem to make her the ideal singer for Kurt Weill. It’s a pity the booklet doesn’t include the words which the singer is at such pains to communicate. Get the disc anyway and try to find the words somewhere is my advice.
 
Christopher Howell
 

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