“ 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
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.