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Christopher Howell
MusicWeb International, July 2007

Naxos label this “Nostalgia”, but I think Kurt Weill is too big a figure for that. Nostalgia means, at least for me, something that belongs to its time, which has passed from fashion and which we now return to with a mixture of amusement and affection. We value it for the way it evokes a past age for us. It’s obviously fascinating to peep into the past and hear the sleazy sound of Theo Mackeben’s Jazz Orchestra, to listen to Bertold Brecht himself recounting Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife) in a manner at once laid back and venomous, with incredible rolled “Rs” at the end of every word that finishes with that letter. Fascinating, too, to find that Lotte Lenya had a high, girlish sort of voice in those days, pretty but scarcely able to convey emotion.

But of course, the music has moved forward with time. Lotte Lenya herself changed. She still sounds much as before in the 1942 New York recordings with Weill himself busking in the background but in 1954 her voice was moving downwards, but gaining substance and intensity. There’s an emotion here I didn’t find before. Much has been said of the downward transpositions Lenya imposed on the music as her voice grew older and increasingly nicotine-stained, colouring our perception of this music for generations, but did she really do it any harm?

Weill’s music has gone through a good many processes over the years. What would he himself have thought of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Mack the Knife”; how would he have reacted to “Surabaya Johnny” in the smouldering renderings of Cathy Berberian or Milva? We may criticize some of these singers for customizing the music for their own purposes – and Milva certainly degenerated into self-caricature with the passing years – but as a result of them we expect this music to be sung with a weight of emotion behind it. Of the “classical” singers who respected Weill’s original orchestrations and sought to create his style, the finest I’ve heard on disc was Brigitte Fassbaender.

Nonetheless, anyone trying to work out how Weill should be sung will have to listen to the earlier records here.

When we come to the likes of Gertrude Lawrence or Danny Kaye, things are rather different. These are the sort of voices we revive out of nostalgia and the music of Weill’s American period has not accompanied us down the generations like his German works. Conventional wisdom has it he became soft and sugary in the United States and these pieces were set aside when the Weill bandwagon started rolling again in the 1970s. More recently they have been re-examined, but if you want to argue that they have the acid of yore beneath their glossy surfaces, these typical Broadway renderings – some of them conducted by Weill’s protégé Maurice Abravanel – would not be the material with which to make your case.

A real curiosity is a demo recording of Weill himself singing, nicely in tune but without vocal allure and with a quaint German accent. He does suggest, through it all, that a rhythmically tighter rendering than the better sung but soupy performance that follows by Mary Martin, may be the way to get something more out of the music.

Lastly there are some instrumentalists to be noted. Heifetz’s ukulele-like pizzicatos and double harmonics are alone worth double the price of the disc, but there is also a nice display from Benny Goodman and the dizzying, life-enhancing verve of Satchmo.

The recordings are obviously variable but, as the producer David Lennick points out, some are very rare. The historical importance of most of them cannot be overestimated.

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