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Kurt Weill (1900-1950)
Symphony No.2 (1933-34)
Violin Concerto, op.12 (1925)
Tamás Kocsis (violin)
Ulster Orchestra/Jac Van Steen
rec. 2021, Ulster Hall, Belfast

It can often be exceptionally rewarding to review important music that I have not consciously listened to before. Like many people, I guess, I have long known Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (1928) and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagony (1930). Add to this some songs from “the shows” sung so convincingly by his wife, Lotte Lenya, and that is probably as far as I have gone in exploring his oeuvre.

I began my assessment of this new CD with the Symphony No.2. This was Weill’s second attempt at this form. Unlike the Violin Concerto, it was composed after the above-mentioned stage works. Interestingly, it was written concurrently with his better-known ballet, The Seven Deadly Sins (1933). It has been noted that in melodic shape and overall mood, these contemporary pieces have points of contact. Certainly, there are nods to the cabaret, so popular in Berlin before the rise of Nazism, in this symphony.

It was commissioned by Princesse Edmond de Polignac (aka Winnaretta Singer, heiress of the Singer Sewing Company). It was to be Weill’s first “concert” work since his Violin Concerto (1925). It was completed at a time when he was living in Paris, after leaving Germany in 1933. He had suffered persecution from the Nazis. I understand that the opening movement was sketched in Berlin.

Structurally, the symphony was based on classical forms that would have been acceptable to Haydn and Mozart. Unlike these two composers, Weill only provided three movements. Furthermore, the orchestra is augmented with trombones and piccolo, unlikely to be used by his two predecessors.

The symphony has been described as presenting musical material that is both sarcastic and bitter. This may be true of some elements of the work, yet there is much here that is both thoughtful and often quite touching. On the other hand, there is little humour, save for a touch of sardonic wit. The middle movement can be construed as a funeral march or cortčge and may be seen as Weill’s lament for his homeland. The final movement is considerably more optimistic as Weill looks forward to his successful future in America - yet even here there is a touch cynicism.

The liner notes mention that the symphony only acquired its number in 1966. In early performances it was titled Symphonic Fantasy. Ostensibly there is no programme to this music; however, the conductor Bruno Walter, who premiered it in Amsterdam on 11 October 1934, remarked its “nocturnal, uncanny, mysterious atmosphere.” It was then given the title Three Night Scenes. There is no indication of what these “scenes” may have been. It was to be his last concert piece; the remainder of his brief life was essentially devoted to Broadway Musicals.

I did not know what to expect of Weill’s concerto for violin and orchestra and wind instruments (including string basses and percussion). I thought that it may have been Romantic in tone, or possibly nodding towards the pre-atonal work of Schoenberg. I was wrong. Actual stylistic influences are several. The liner notes suggest that the choice of wind band may have been “impelled” by Igor Stravinsky’s symphonies for wind instruments or maybe his The Soldier’s Tale. There are elements of Busoni’s influence and perhaps even that of Mahler in these pages. Schoenberg may be reflected in several passages that seem to owe something to Pierrot Lunaire. Furthermore, there are nods to Weill’s own later style exemplified in the final chorus of his musical Happy End. The liner notes mention that the first movement quotes the funeral plainchant, Dies Irae, setting the tone of this discursive and “polite discussion of high intellect.”

The second movement is like a little, standalone three-piece suite. Various instruments pair with the xylophone in the Nocturne, the trumpet in the Cadenza and the flute and oboe in the Serenata. The cheerful finale may reflect Weill’s engagement to Lotte Lenya in that year. Overall, the mood can be described as haunting and at the same time as “sparky” (Andrew Achenbach).

The work was composed in Berlin during April/May 1924 and was completed shortly before the death of his teacher, Ferruccio Busoni. It was written specifically for Joseph Szigeti, but the premiere performance on 11 June 1925 was by Marcel Darrieux at the ISCM festival in Paris.

As noted above, I did not know this music before reviewing this CD, so I have little to compare this performance to. On first and second hearings of the symphony and the concerto, I have been convinced by the superb performances by Tamás Kocsis and the Ulster Orchestra under Jac Van Steen. The sound quality is splendid.

The liner notes by Robert Matthew Walker are detailed and helpful. There are biographies about the soloist and conductor, but not the orchestra. Nowhere is the actual date of composition or premiere performance of the symphony given – only alluded to. Finally, at just under 58 minutes, this CD duration is just a little bit mean. Surely something else could have been squeezed in.

I looked through Weill’s catalogue to see what other orchestral music he wrote for the concert hall. Sadly, there is little remaining that has either not been lost, is unfinished or has been derived from his stage works. There is the less successful (apparently) Symphony No.1 and the Divertimento for orchestra, op. 5 that may be worthy of the present orchestra’s attention.

This is a fascinating CD that repays study. For me, the cost of the disc is amply repaid by the heartfelt reminiscence presented in the symphony’s slow movement. That said, I would never recommend excerpting; the entire work demands to be heard and understood within the context of the less-than- happy circumstances in which it was written. Equally valuable, is the well-conceived Violin Concerto, possibly not the greatest example produced in the 20th century, but undoubtedly deserving our attention. One is left wondering what Kurt Weill would have achieved had he continued to compose absolute music as opposed to opting for Broadway.

John France 

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