Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Die Sieben Todsünden – Ballet with songs (1933) [34:10]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lulu-Suite - Symphonic pieces from the Opera “Lulu” (1934) [32:54]
Angelina Réaux (soprano): Members of Hudson Shad – Hugo Munday, Mark Bleeke (tenors), Peter Becker (baritone), Wilbur Pauly (bass)
New York Philharmonic/Kurt Masur
rec. live, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, December 1993
WARNER APEX 2564 68162-5 [67:43]
Full marks for imaginative programming. Two masterpieces written virtually simultaneously by great masters of twentieth century music, performed live (although with no audible evidence of it) with real understanding and in clear if somewhat close recordings. At budget price this ought to be a wonderful opportunity for listeners unfamiliar with them to get to know, understand, and enjoy both works. However Apex have greatly reduced their chance of doing this through lamentably poor presentation. All the listener gets is a bare list of track titles without any text or translations or the kind of programme notes which are surely essential for both works. This could have been a disc which could be recommended to those hitherto nervous of either work, or with a general interest in the music of the 1930s. Presented in this way I can still recommend it but only with the severe reservation that the listener will have to do much work on their own to get the most out of it.
Kurt Weill’s “Die Sieben Todsünden” is an utterly unique work. It was commissioned by Edward James as a ballet, and parts were to be provided for Tilly Losch, James’ wife, and Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife. Bertold Brecht was persuaded to write the text in which the two soloists represent two sisters, both called Anna, from Louisiana who are trying to accumulate enough money for their family at home to build a little house. The Seven Deadly Sins of the title are encountered in turn by the sisters, with the family, sung by the male voice quartet (the bass sings the mother), offering advice. In each case the dancer is tempted to give in to the sin but is stopped by her singing sister who warns that this would reduce their earning power. Thus, for instance, pride would prevent the dancing Anna from earning money as a stripper, and gluttony would make her too fat to be hired as a dancer. Although neither the composer nor the librettist regarded it as a major work it has received many recordings and performances in recent years, and in a good performance it can make a big impact. What that impact is, however, does depend on how much of the text can be followed, especially when the dancing element cannot be seen. Otherwise it can come across as little more than a collection of attractive numbers in popular styles of the period. This is perhaps not the most convincing performance I have heard, and Angelina Réaux does tend at times to make use of that unattractive bark which some singers feel to be stylish in Weill’s music of this period. Nonetheless it has enough energy and commitment for Brecht’s savagely ironic text and the quartet are good. But for full appreciation you need to be able to follow the text. Auden and Isherwood’s translation would be more than adequate for this purpose but will involve you in a separate purchase.
It was also in 1934 that Berg completed the opera Lulu in short score. The Lulu-Suite derives from various scenes of the opera and was fully scored before the rest of the work as a way of promoting it in advance. Its five movements are varied and intensely inventive, ending with a wonderful set of Variations on a London street song and the final scene in which Lulu and her lover, the Countess Geschwitz both die at the hands of Jack the Ripper. The complexity of the music is considerable, and despite Berg’s careful marking of primary and secondary voices in the orchestra the actual sound and effect of particular passages can very greatly between performances. All the more reason to add multiple recordings of the work to your collection. Even if Angelina Réaux’s voice lacks the essential beauty of tone and innocence which the best singers on record have brought to the role there is plenty of life and understanding in the performance. The singer is however by no means as important in this work as in the Weill. Those of a nervous disposition will be pleased to know that the blood-curdling scream which Helga Pilarczyk gave in Dorati’s recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, through which I got to know the work, is omitted. It invariably had the neighbours asking what was going on.
If only Apex had presented this disc adequately this would have been a really recommendable bargain for anyone wanting to get to know these two works. As it is its inherent merits remain, but to get full enjoyment the purchaser does need to obtain the crucial texts and background information from elsewhere, especially for the Weill.
If only Apex had presented this disc adequately this would have been a really recommendable bargain.