Monday, September 01, 2008

Kurt Weill

For the last week and more, Joshua and I have been listening to three discs of music by Kurt Weill.

We listened to the discs in the car while driving East ten days ago, and we listened to the discs on our new sound system the last couple of days.

We chose these discs because my brother likes the music of Kurt Weill, and we thought he would enjoy hearing the discs during our long drive from Minneapolis to Boston.

The three discs we chose were:

“Der Dreigroschenoper”, performed by Lotte Lenya, Willi Trenk-Trebitsch, other vocal soloists and a pickup chorus and orchestra under Wilhelm Bruckner-Ruggeberg, on the Sony label

“Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill”, performed by Ute Lemper and the RIAS Berlin Chamber Orchestra under John Mauceri, on the Decca label

“The Unknown Kurt Weill”, performed by Teresa Stratas and Richard Woitach, on the Nonesuch label

This recording of “The Threepenny Opera”, made exactly fifty years ago, is the classic recording of the work, probably never equaled and certainly never exceeded. The recording, amazingly, is out of print at present.

The edition we listened to was the first compact disc version of the recording, published in Germany in 1982 and originally issued with an elaborate 96-page booklet. A further, less deluxe edition was published in 1990, but neither the 1982 edition nor the 1990 edition is any longer in the active domestic catalog.

Given that this recording is one of the classics of the gramophone, the current unavailability of the recording should be a crime.

This is one in a series of recordings of Kurt Weill’s music that Lotte Lenya recorded (and supervised) in Germany in the 1950’s. Made in Berlin in January 1958, this recording features two of the original cast members from the 1928 premiere of “The Threepenny Opera”, Lenya and Willi Trenk-Trebitsch. The other cast members are German singers little-known at the time this recording was made and virtually forgotten today.

At the time this recording was issued, it was represented to be the first “complete” recording of the entire score. That claim is and was troublesome, because there is no authoritative edition of the score. Over the years, more than one version of Berthold Brecht’s libretto has circulated and more than one version of Weill’s vocal score has circulated (and the various vocal scores leave unresolved the question of orchestration). This is the result of Brecht and Weill never having considered the original Berlin production to be definitive—both writer and composer actively tinkered with the work over a period of years while the work was still being performed in Germany—as well as the result of Brecht and Weill seeing no future for their work after the Nazis banned further performances of “The Threepenny Opera” shortly after coming to power in 1933. In 1972, a so-called “complete” edition of the score was finally published, but the “completeness” of that 1972 edition has always been in dispute. A further Critical Edition was published in 2000. It is probably accurate to state that this 1958 recording is more-or-less complete insofar as Weill scholarship had progressed by the middle 1950’s, and that it contains most of the important music (and certainly a fuller account of the score than had previously been recorded). However, the only truly “complete” recording of “The Threepenny Opera” is the RCA recording conducted by H. K. Gruber, a two-disc set recorded in Frankfurt in 1999 that has never made much headway in the American market.

I love this old 1958 Sony recording. Issues of completeness aside, this is the recording by which I first got to know the work. All subsequent recordings, to me, seem wrong-headed in comparison.

The key to this recording’s success is the work, not of Lotte Lenya, but of conductor Wilhelm Bruckner-Ruggeberg. He understands, better than any of his successors that have recorded the score, that “The Threepenny Opera” is, above all, a dance-based work. There is a rhythmic freedom in Bruckner-Ruggeberg’s conducting, a rightness and a lightness, a throwaway quality, that later conductors have never been able to duplicate. In modern hands, Weill’s music is too often performed with a heavy “seriousness” that negates an essential attraction of the music: its very offhandedness. Further, contemporary Weill conductors perform Weill’s music with its cynicism promenaded front and center instead of allowing the cynicism slyly to seep through the cracks of an indifferent fa├žade. Weill’s stage music from his German years must be performed with an “I don’t give a damn” quality, and this particular quality has been lost in Weill performance over the years, even (and perhaps especially) in Germany. Bruckner-Ruggeberg, however, understands the requirements of Weill, and he understands them instinctively and exquisitely. From a conducting standpoint, this may be the finest (and most essential) Weill recording ever made.

The singers are more than acceptable, although Lenya undeniably steals the show. Hers is the only truly memorable performance on the recording. Lenya’s voice is roughhewn and husky, she is far too old for the role of Jenny, her numbers are transposed down, and she assumes the “Pirate Jenny” number that rightfully should be assigned to the character of Polly. Despite all this, Lenya’s performance is a triumph, mostly because of personal magnetism and an innate mastery of her late husband’s music (of course, the role of Jenny was written for Lenya, although she almost was not cast in the original production). Lenya is indelibly associated with this music and this role, and many people simply cannot hear any other artist in the part.

I do not go this far—I prefer the music to be sung in the original keys, and with a higher and purer voice, and perhaps with a touch less world-weariness than Lenya ladles indiscriminately onto everything she sings—but Lenya offers what is undeniably an unforgettable performance. This performance will live forever. I would not want to be without it.

My brother loves “The Threepenny Opera” and he can listen to the score over and over. He is not fluent in German, but there are several numbers he knows by heart and can even join in, including the “The Cannon Song”, which has always captured his fancy. (It was “The Cannon Song” that turned the members of the opening-night audience in 1928 Berlin from stone-faced pilasters into wild partisans of the show. The song had to be immediately encored, and the success of the show was from that point assured.)

Josh had never heard “The Threepenny Opera” before we listened to this recording. He liked the music a great deal, and he especially liked the piquant instrumentation, perfect for the material (the sound of “The Threepenny Opera” was to become the signature sound of The Weimar Republic). Josh did not especially care for Lenya’s singing, but he understood that her performance had nothing to do with voice and everything to do with style.

Ute Lemper’s voice is an instrument far superior to Lenya’s, purer and more even and surer of pitch. I suppose it may be said that Lemper was the Lenya of the 1990’s, Lemper’s peak decade.

“Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill” was Lemper’s first disc. It made her an international star on the day of its release in 1988.

And, make no mistake, this is a superb disc, perhaps the finest Weill recital disc ever recorded. It is the best thing Lemper has ever done. Nothing she was to record subsequently, including “Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill, Volume II”, even comes close to her work here.

Every one of the fourteen tracks is inspired. Lemper is a more aggressive and more edgy performer than Lenya, and she can be a bit of a vamp, but her approach to Weill here is as unique and as valid as Lenya’s, and she knows how to put across every single number.

She is helped immeasurably by conductor John Mauceri, who offers sharp, pointed, saucy accompaniments, full of character, with brilliant (and deadpan) playing from the Berlin instrumentalists. This recording is the best work Mauceri has ever done on disc, too, and somewhat of a surprise. Mauceri’s other Weill discs, also for Decca, are—without exception—dull as dust. Mauceri is responsible for the most boring “Threepenny Opera” ever recorded as well as for a deadly “Street Scene”. He also was the conductor for Lemper’s second Weill recital disc, which turned out to be flat as a pancake. Whatever accounts for his excellent work here? I wish I knew (I suspect that there was a long period of planning and rehearsal before Lemper and Mauceri and the instrumentalists moved into the recording studio).

Just about every number on the disc is from Weill’s top drawer. There are selections from “Berliner Requiem”, “Threepenny Opera”, “Mahagonny” and “Silbersee”. The disc also features a German lied and a French chanson. The disc concludes with three selections from “One Touch Of Venus”, written for Mary Martin, in which Lemper’s English is flawless and her mastery of Broadway style complete. Lemper is not the only artist on the disc who successfully delivers the American numbers—surprisingly, Mauceri’s Berlin orchestra delivers the right 1940’s American sound and style, too, replete with perfect “swing” (something normally beyond the capabilities of European musicians).

“Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill” was an amazing debut disc. It is a modern classic. It is as much a classic as any of Lenya’s Weill discs.

My brother and I have always loved this disc. In fact, he and I each have our own copy, which is unique, both because we generally pass discs of common interest back and forth between us and because my brother does not listen to music as often as I do.

Josh was entirely captivated by the Lemper disc. It has already become one of his very favorite recordings.

“The Unknown Kurt Weill” is also considered to be a classic recording, at least by many music-lovers. It was the result of a friendship Teresa Stratas developed with Lotte Lenya at the end of Lenya’s life, a friendship that began when Stratas appeared in the first Metropolitan Opera production of Weill’s “The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny” in 1979.

The disc is mistitled. The music on the recording is not unknown, and was not unknown in 1981, the year of the recording’s release. Most of these songs have long been familiar to Kurt Weill fans.

Many knowledgeable persons hold this disc in the highest admiration, but I am not among that number. Stratas’s Weill has never moved me as much as Lenya’s or as much as Lemper’s. I am not sure why this is so.

One of the problems surely is Richard Woitach, Stratas’s accompanist. He brings absolutely nothing to the table. Woitach, not a professional pianist, was simply the wrong artist for this assignment. He was engaged at the insistence of Miss Stratas (Stratas and Woitach had developed a friendship during the years Woitach served as a not-particularly-distinguished Chorus Master at the Metropolitan Opera). Woitach’s playing here is perfunctory, even crude. In terms of technique and musicianship, he is in way over his head (and this is so despite the fact that Weill’s piano writing is hardly challenging).

Another problem is that Stratas is not a natural Weill singer. There is an awful lot of unnatural over-emphasis of enunciation and musical phrasing on this disc, as well as some insufferable “play acting”, and it all quickly starts to grate. This disc has always struck me as a prime instance of an opera singer trying her hand at a disc of art songs, only to find out that the broad musical strokes required in the theater do not carry over into the realm of the art song. Even as she tries to scale down her approach for the microphone, Stratas remains too operatic, too reliant on tricks from the stage instead of from the recital platform. The result is an awkward, fake “intimacy” that Stratas tries to create between herself and the listener. It is nothing so much as irritating.

This disc may have been a game try on Miss Stratas’s part, but it just doesn’t work.

My brother says that the problem with this disc is that the performances are all too one-dimensional. Miss Stratas, he says, plays “the disaffected chanteuse” in every single number, whether or not it is apt to the song in question.

“Save it for a nightclub, lady!” is a remark my brother involuntarily offered, in exasperation, after several hearings of this disc. I suspect my brother’s instinctive utterance was a correct assessment of why this disc does not come off.

I feel compelled to note in her defense that Miss Stratas was never a successful recording artist. Even in her prime—and this Weill disc was recorded when Miss Stratas was well past her prime—Miss Stratas had a voice that did not “take” to the microphone.

I never heard Miss Stratas live—she retired when I was fourteen years old—but my parents heard Miss Stratas several times, and they tell me that her voice was one of those voices that could not be captured by the microphone. Miss Stratas’s voice, heard live, apparently sounded nothing like the voice that emerges through electronic amplification. In the 1960’s, her peak years, virtually every major recording label in Europe tested Miss Stratas’s voice with the thought of offering her a recording contract. After hearing the test results, all took a pass on her. Hers was simply not a voice for the recording studio.

Miss Stratas’s work lives on primarily through her Deutsche Grammophon “Lulu” and her EMI “Showboat”, as well as for this Weill recital disc, all of which were recorded long after her voice had lost its bloom. It is regrettable that such a fine artist left virtually no documentation of her work while her voice was at its very best. Further, it is regrettable that Miss Stratas will be remembered most vividly only by those lucky enough to have experienced her in person. Future generations, able to assess her qualities only through recordings she left behind, will be unable to understand why she was such an esteemed artist in her time.

While “The Unknown Kurt Weill” is largely a disappointment, there is, happily, a lot of good music on the disc, so at least the music itself offers some rewards for the listener. Many of Weill’s best lieder, chansons and songs are included on the disc, including both the French and German versions of the same song, ”Je Ne T’Aime Pas” and “Wie Lange Noch?”, the German version of which is far more gut-wrenching.

The most charming song on the disc, and the song that receives the finest performance, was written during World War II, a period in which Weill was quite literally killing himself churning out scores to Broadway musicals. A tribute to America’s wartime industrial workers, this song is among the most captivating of all American popular songs. The song represents the thoughts of a factory worker turning over his place on the assembly line to his replacement at the end of a long and wearying shift. Its lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein II.

Its title: “Buddy On The Night Shift”.

It is an enchanting song.


  1. I can't believe it. I have all three of these. I haven't listened to them in years. Not a Weill fan, necessarily.

    That "Threepenny" is the best. The one Mauceri recorded was no good at all. I never figured out why. The cast was good on paper. Have you heard the RCA you mentioned?

    I used to like that Lemper album, but I haven't listened to it in years. I grew tired of Lemper.

    I remember nothing, nothing at all, about that Stratas album. I never cared for her voice.

  2. No, Dan, I have never heard the Gruber recording.