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Kerker musicals 7775092
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Gustave Kerker (1847-1923)
Die Oberen Zehntausend (Broadway in Berlin), operetta in three acts (1897)
Words by Julius Freund (1862-1914)
Burning to Sing or Singing to Burn, a spoof in one act (1904)
Words by RH Burnside (1873-1952)
The Belle of Broadway, musical comedy in two acts (1897)
Words by Hugh Morton (1865-1916)
Ivette, Claire; Madame Tremolini – Elke Kottmair (soprano)
Germaine – Gritt Gnauck (mezzo)
Princess Fifi; Bell Boy – Nadja Stefanoff (mezzo)
Gaston; Fireman Higgins – Ralf Simon (tenor)
Chatillard; Signor Tremolini – Gerd Wiemer (baritone)
Théophile Boche; Thomassini – Alfred Berg (baritone)
James Boche, Olivier; Fireman Harris – Christian Grygas (baritone)
NDR Radiophilharmonie/Howard Griffiths
Booklet notes in German and English
rec. 2009, Großer Sendesaal of NDR, Hannover, Germany
CPO 777509-2 [2 CDs: 93]

Gustave Kerker was once a well-known composer of musicals which appeared on Broadway in the early days of the ascendancy of the Great White Way. In 2022 his name is little more than a footnote in histories of musical theatre. If Kerker’s work is remembered at all, it would be for his 1897 hit The Belle of New York; and solely because it inspired an especially memorable 1952 MGM film vehicle for stars Fred Astaire and Vera Ellen. That film, despite its imaginatively staged dance numbers, including one delightful dance duo on a horse drawn streetcar, chose to eject Kerker’s entire score in favour of newer songs. Thus Kerker remained stuck in the shadows until CPO, in co-operation with the NDR, decided to shed a little light on his output with this new release.

Kerker appears to have been much in demand in his day even to the point of being invited to compose an operetta for Berlin in 1897. This resulted in the main work on this disc, Die Oberen Zehntausen,; which would be accurately translated as “the upper ten thousand”. According to the booklet notes it seems that reviewers of the day seem to have been more impressed with the novelty of American-style chorus girl dancing being introduced to the continent than any other particular feature of the operetta. On listening to it today, Kerker’s music comes across as pleasantly tuneful but with nothing really inventive to offer. The songs are not all that memorable, especially for anyone who has heard Franz Lehar’s Die Lustige Witwe and fallen under its spell. They will likely be disappointed by how this work pales in comparison. The plot is among the most impenetrable examples that I have ever come across; sadly, CPO’s well-meaning booklet notes are not successful in clarifying any of it.

Among the cast for this exhumation are the richly-coloured voice of Nadja Steffanoff as the Princess Fiffi, who deserves to show off her voice in a role with much better music than this one allows for. Ralf Simon as the romantic lead Gaston, has a poised though somewhat light-bodied tenor. He certainly makes an appealing contribution to the proceedings. The two baritones, Gerd Wiemer and Alfred Berg, both offer pleasing vocal portraits and nicely animated delivery of their music.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for Kerker’s score, the musical direction of Howard Grifffiths pushes each number forward with verve and panache. He clearly sees more in this score than I do. To be fair to the composer there is an unusual duet which features harness bells and a twittering bird whistle to add novelty to its orchestration. Much the best music of the score is the second act waltz finale in which Griffith’s energises his cast into delivering an enthusiastic ensemble with true theatrical feeling.

The second work on this set is the 1904 musical satire Burning to Sing or Singing to Burn. This is a short piece which spoofs the operatic responses to absurd situations; in this case a married couple involved in a tiff while their hotel happens to be on fire. Silly stuff indeed but Kerker’s inspirations really comes alive in this work which shows he had more skill as a melodist than the previous work might lead one to think. His musical satirization of grand opera is tackled with a subtle hand which does not overwhelm the piece. The cast again is quite fine and in general offers stylish performances. Elke Kottmair is a delightful Madame Tremolini and she is joined by the generally excellent Wiemer and Steffanoff in the supporting roles.

Lastly, there is a 13-minute orchestral arrangement of highlights from The Belle of New York. Considering that this was Kerker’s biggest hit, it is disappointing to learn that the original full score is locked away in a private collection which prohibits access to musicians and musicologists from attempting to restore it to life again, even after 125 years of silence. The arrangement recorded here was made around the time of the musical’s successes in both New York and London. It is likely the closest we may ever get to experiencing the score in anything approaching its original state. Here Griffiths again shows off his skill at propelling his players to a zesty reading of the piece. Kerker’s music seems lively and tuneful in this setting, but only a true revival of the score will shed more light on this.

Ultimately this is a pleasant and worthwhile disc, especially for aficionados of musical theatre history. However, it is clear that Gustave Kerker’s music remains firmly trapped in that period of time known as “the naughty nineties”.

Mike Parr

Author's note: After this review was published, MusicWeb was contacted by the conductor and musicologist Dario Salvi. Mr Salvi wished to notify me that the original score of The Bell of New York was in his possession and that he had edited it for recent performances in Germany that were apparently recorded for later release on CD. This is welcome news which contradicts the claims made in CPO's accompanying booklet to this release.

Previous review: Raymond Walker

Published: October 25, 2022

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