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Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, February 2015

It’s the kind of peripheral repertoire at which Alsop excels, and the Bournemouth Symphony that she led from 2002 to 2008 play very well for her. Really, these underrated symphonies couldn’t have a better advocate. As for the symphonic nocturne: that’s the icing on the cake. Now languid [and] luscious, Bennett’s jazzy arrangement had me tapping my toes from start to finish.

Little-known rep that deserves a wider audience; terrific performance and recording. © 2015 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Steve Schwartz
Classical Net, June 2011

I have yet to get over the fact that Kurt Weill died at 50, after a 30-year career. Masterpieces began to appear just before his 20th birthday. Weill ranks as one of the great theater innovators and composers, but his instrumental works—the violin concerto, the b-minor string quartet, the Quodlibet, the cello sonata, the two symphonies—also deserve respect. Weill left purely instrumental composition behind in Europe, although “instrumentals” continued to turn up in his theater works, including his musicals. You don’t have to look hard for the reason. Weill worked solely as a professional musician. He didn’t seek out the shelter and support of the academy. You can starve in the United States trying to make it on symphonies and concerti. Musicals paid. Time is money.

Contrary to somebody like Adorno, I don’t necessarily knock the commercial culture as trivial or antithetical to great art, but it does influence the kind of art we get. Sondheim writes musicals rather than operas. Our playwrights tend to be entertainers and comedians rather than poets or tragedians. Tom Stoppard isn’t really possible in this country, except as an occasional treat for a niche audience. For that matter, neither is Shakespeare. Our concert composers, with few exceptions, work as teachers or even outside music, live on the rare government grant, conduct or perform, or have family money of their own. A composer who lives solely on his own musical work is necessarily a composer working in the commercial field. Quincy Jones knew a lot more music than he needed to produce a Michael Jackson album.

On his arrival in the United States during the Thirties, Weill quickly and shrewdly summed up the environment he would have to work in. That he did so with so few compromises amazes me. Nevertheless, the symphonies tease us with what might have been.

The first symphony (Weill did not number his symphonies, but I probably will, for convenience), sometimes known as the “Berliner,” comes from a 21-year-old Weill at the very beginning of his study with Busoni. On the strength of it, Busoni accepted him into his master class with the proviso that Weill do remedial contrapuntal work with Busoni’s former pupil and assistant Jarnach. Listening to the first symphony, I don’t quite understand why Busoni insisted, since the main problems with the score don’t lie in the counterpoint. Weill’s maiden effort doesn’t completely succeed, but its virtues outweigh its defects. Above all, you remember its main ideas and despite the influence of something like Schoenberg’s chamber symphonies, it sounds like nothing else at the time. It may flummox those who know Weill’s later work, like the Dreigroschenoper, since it has little to do with fox-trots or German Kabarett style. Nevertheless, one hears foreshadowings, mainly in the harmonies (early on, he had a fondness for an added 6th in a triad, as in “Mack the Knife”). It may have its origins in a poem by Johannes Becher, at the time a religious socialist. Weill, a liberal who did not completely embrace socialism and was throughout his life attracted to material with strong moral and humanistic content, at one time affixed a quote from Becher’s Workers, Farmers, and Soldiers: A People’s Awakening to God to the symphony’s title page.

In one movement, the symphony begins with a long introduction initiated by a descent of grinding chords. After a brief quasi-religioso section, it launches into an episodic allegro. The grinding chords reappear. We move to a long slow movement, a pokey Ländler (likely inspired by Mahler), and wind up with a “chorale fantasy” and a coda, based on the grinding chords. The emotional tone is surprisingly adult in one so young. However, Weill’s inexperience betrays him, particularly in the first movement. There’s no real argument, rather a series of loose passages. Things perk up afterward. However, the orchestration tends to thickness. Still, many a “mature” composer can reasonably envy the youngster for this score.

The Symphony #2 comes from Weill’s brief stay in Paris. Commissioned by the Princess Edmond de Polignac (née Winnaretta Singer, heir to the sewing-machine fortune), Weill wrote the work in 1933–34, which became part of a long line of distinguished works commissioned by the Princess, including: Stravinsky’s Renard, Poulenc’s Aubade and organ concerto, Satie’s Socrate, and Falla’s El retablo de Maese Pedro. For my money, it reaches the level of Modernist musical icon, meticulously crafted, innovative, and way more memorable than most. By this time, Weill had mastered his Europop-based idiom. This symphony revisits the musical world of Mahagonny. The themes are clear-cut and song-like. The argument proceeds with neoclassic clarity, and early movements comment on later ones.

In three separate movements—the traditional fast-slow-fast, with the middle movement bearing most of the emotional weight—the symphony begins on a scalar idea rising through a minor third. This has great consequence throughout the symphony. Minor thirds, rising and falling, make up many of the themes and keys often shift by minor thirds. After a slow introduction with a stuttering undercurrent of quick notes, the quick notes gather together and burst out into a restless allegro molto. Weill holds the movement together by distinctive rhythmic motifs as well, many of them reminiscent of quick passages in Mahagonny, like the opening to the opera and the typhoon sequence. Lyrical contrasts show similarities as well with Mahagonny’s “Und wie man sich bettet, so liegt man” (“as you make your bed, so must you lie”). It turns out that this shape appears in the other movements as well. I have no idea whether Weill thought of this consciously or subconsciously, but if we consider that he was on the run from the Nazis, it could stand as a prophetic warning.

The second movement is mainly a slow march, again held together with distinctive rhythms. The first theme is headed by a decorated falling third, also varied as a rising third. A trombone solo comes in with the ghost of “Und wie man sich bettet,” which Weill then develops with great subtlety. Bits from the first movement creep in, slowed down, like brief flashes of memory. The movement moves slowly but inexorably and builds to several climaxes. It skillfully builds and, just as skillfully, falls away. After a final climb and climax, the movement’s opening theme returns, subdued, and fades out.

Not a rondo so much as “rondo-like,” the finale gives us back much of the first movement in a fun-house mirror. Despite “merry” rhythms, irony outweighs joy. If George Grosz had done animated cartoons, this music could have provided the soundtrack. The initial theme is simply the very first idea of the entire symphony sped up. Other ideas from previous movements join in, this time as grotesques. “Und wie man sich bettet” appears once more, this time as a quirky, perky march. The symphony ends, not on a grand high or on a note of reflection, but on a kind of horse laugh.

I saw Robert Russell Bennett’s name as the “arranger” of the Lady in the Dark concert suite, and my heart sank. Because of a union rule as well as the lack of training of most Broadway composers, orchestration almost always fell to a talented group of scorers including Hans Spialek, Will Vodery, Don Walker, Hershey Kay, and, most famously, Bennett. We owe the sound of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, among others, to Bennett. A pupil of Nadia Boulanger, Bennett was a creditable composer in his own right, but no Kurt Weill. Weill had received special dispensation to orchestrate his own stuff, which he did. Incidentally, Bennett also came up with the Porgy and Bess Symphonic Picture. Admittedly, it made a huge pops success (which I’m sure the Gershwin family and estate appreciated), but to me, it trivializes the opera. He was no George Gershwin either, and his effort kept Gershwin’s far more interesting Catfish Row suite from getting a hearing. What’s wrong with Bennett’s “symphonic nocturne” is that most of it sounds not like Weill, but like Bennett. The “Dance of the Tumblers” movement comes closest, but it’s still too suave by half. The original has more acid. Alsop would have done better to approach Kim Kowalke at the Kurt Weill Foundation for permission to present a scene of the real stuff.

On the symphonies, Alsop does a fine job indeed. Alsop relaxes a little, allows in more warmth, particularly in the second’s slow movement. The sound improves on the 50-year-old stereo, particularly of the EMI LP, and with Naxos, of course, the price is right.

Classic FM, November 2006

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Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News, January 2006

Long lost, the Second Symphony is the prize here, but the First is worth hearing. Marin Alsop leads persuasive performances by the Bournemouth orchestra, capably recorded.

Bradley Bambarger
Newark Star-Ledger, December 2005

A student of Busoni, Kurt Weill wasn't just the tunesmith of "The Threepenny Opera." In a tangy, neo-classical style, the German composer wrote two symphonies, a violin concerto and a string quartet. This disc features the symphonies, plus a "Symphonic Nocturne" arranged from his 1940 Broadway show "Lady in the Dark."

The piquant reeds and whistle-worthy tunes of Weill's Brechtian theater masterpieces are apparent in his symphonies, especially the Second, of 1934. For his EMI recording, Mariss Jansons had the Berlin Philharmonic bite into the Second with pre-war edginess. While not ignoring the spirit of Stravinsky in both symphonies, Marin Alsop has her English orchestra caress the music more, bringing out its almost erotic allure.

Orchestras everywhere should program the glowing "Symphonic Nocturne" (arranged by Robert Russell Bennett). It opens, "andante misterioso," with the tune of "My Ship," the waves of melody rolling irresistibly.

Boosey & Hawkes, November 2005

Mark-Anthony TURNAGE: Scherzoid; Evening Songs; When I Woke; Yet Another Set To

London Philharmonic Orchestra with Marin Alsop, Vladimir Jurowski, Jonathan Nott, Gerald Finley, Christian Lindberg

John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune, October 2005

Thanks to the controversial circumstances of her recent appointment as music director designate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop has garnered more media attention in a few months than most conductors do in a lifetime. This has had the distressing effect of getting people to pay closer attention to her gender than her superior qualities as a conductor. Her recent recordings for Naxos, among which this is the prize, fortunately are putting matters in proper perspective. Kurt Weill's two symphonies have never quite caught on in the concert hall, even if they've fared respectably on record. That may be understandable in the case of the budding composer's First Symphony (1921), a rambling and derivative exercise that's clearly beholden to early Schoenberg, especially the Chamber Symphony No. 1. But the Second Symphony, written during his Paris exile from Nazi Germany in 1933, doesn't deserve its neglect. A sophisticated masterpiece that points to the neo-classical directions Weill could have pursued had he not been seduced by American musical theater, it has a caustic severity that calls to mind his earlier collaborations with Bertolt Brecht: Listen to the affecting central Largo, which suggests a cross between Mahler and "Mack the Knife." Robert Russell Bennett's symphonic picture of tunes from Weill's "Lady in the Dark" (1940) lightens and sweetens the mood, but it's Alsop's bold and invigorating performances of the symphonies that make this disc worth snapping up, especially at Naxos' bargain price. The sound is first-rate as well.

Bernard Holland
The New York Times, October 2005

IF they haven't already, conductors looking for relatively unknown, audience-friendly orchestral music of quality might take a look at Kurt Weill's Second Symphony. It's part of a Weill disc from Naxos that includes the First Symphony and the "Symphonic Nocturne," an instrumental suite based on the Broadway show "Lady in the Dark" as arranged by Robert Russell Bennett.

The American conductor Marin Alsop has stirred up news after her mixed reception as the next music director of the Baltimore Symphony. Britain, where she has been principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony since 2002, has been friendlier all along, greeting her with critical praise. The performances here are well organized, motivated and worth the trouble taken over them.

The Second Symphony, from 1934, incorporates the captivating directness that makes Weill's stage pieces work. His unhurried, marchlike relentlessness is on display. The impression is of a wordless anthem in celebration of an unspoken cause. We hear Weill's momentum even when it is in hiding or undergoing subtle rhythmic transformation, as in the pervasive rhythmic tic of the slow movement. By rights, music by itself cannot invoke politics or any social cause. Why, then, do we hear this stirring and determined music and long to pick up a flag and march alongside?

The First Symphony - sweaty, anxious and ambitious for bigness of sound and spirit - tells more about what Weill was in 1921 than about what he would become. Acid chords and anguished lyricism announce a young man's tribute to post-Romanticism. In the theater, Weill was to find a laconic, stripped-down sensibility; next to it, the music of this early piece sounds almost gluttonous.

A world and a lifetime away are the gentler curves and easygoing beauties of "Lady in the Dark," from 1940, emblematic of a Central European's courageous and total immersion in the musical styles of Broadway and its great composers of the 1930's.

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, October 2005

While Marin Alsop is in the midst of a commendable cycle of Brahms symphonies for Naxos as I write this, her greater value may well be her frequent forays into the less-traversed areas of the repertory, like the Weill symphonies here. After all, we’re not exactly wanting for good recordings of the Brahms symphonies, but how many previous issues of the Weill symphonies have there been? Janssons and the Berlin Philharmonic have done the Second on EMI, and there have been a few other recordings of this still-neglected work. But I know of no other recordings of the First. Thus, since both of these symphonies are worthwhile creations, this is a most valuable release. . . .

The performances are certainly committed, the insightful Alsop drawing spirited playing from her Bournemouth players, making them sound competitive with Great Britain’s finest orchestras. . . . Naxos’ sound is excellent. Recommended.

Adam Baer
Los Angeles Times, October 2005

This has been a banner year for conductor Marin Alsop. She didn't win only the music directorship of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; she won a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. And she's celebrating the release of this passionately performed and reverberant account of Kurt Weill's symphonic roots: the dark and modern First Symphony (1921), written while the German "Threepenny Opera" composer studied with Ferruccio Busoni; the Second Symphony (1934), a more fluid, tonal work composed with Weill's signature melodic wit just before he left turmoil-ridden Europe; and arranger Robert Russell Bennett's Weill theater suite "Symphonic Nocturne." The last is a piece consistent in spirit with the ironic hit "Mack the Knife"— and proof that the most enduring and artful popular music stands firmly on classical foundations.

Memphis Commercial Appeal, September 2005

This captivating recent release depicts three different shades of Kurt Weill, the German theater composer who dabbled only a little with major orchestral works. Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra deliver darkly enthusiastic performances of these somber pieces, all "rediscovered" years after their unspectacular premieres. Written just after the First World War, the single-movement Symphony No. 1 has whiffs of Stravinsky and Hindemith. If the confusing politics of postwar Germany are hinted at in his first symphony, they loom large in Symphony No. 2, written in 1933 as Hitler was taking charge and the leftist Weill was about to flee to Paris. While the piece is never too brazen or overwrought, there are enough march-stepping rhythms, and military sentimentality to suggest a dangerous atmosphere. The disc ends with Weill having moved to America and writing Broadway music for Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin. Full of jazzy, sentimental melodies, this concert suite for 1940's "Lady in the Dark" shows Weill in his best element.

The Week Magazine, September 2005

Kurt Weill is best known for his scores for such popular avant-garde theater works as The Threepenny Opera. But he also wrote two rarely played symphonies that are unparalleled windows into “the turbulent political environment in Germany during the 1920s and ’30s,” said Erik Levi in BBC Music Magazine. Weill’s First Symphony (1921) “seems to mirror all the turmoil and suffering” around him. He wrote his Second Symphony (1933–34) in Paris, shortly before fleeing to the United States. It “offers a disturbing mixture of resignation and defiance against the rising tide of fascism.” This disc provides a good measure of conductor Marin Alsop, who leads Britain’s Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, said David Patrick Stearns in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Recently appointed director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Alsop shows “her strengths as a musical facilitator, bringing together three minor works to make a major statement.” Alsop thoroughly “commands the craggy, formal terrain,” said Richard Dyer in The Boston Globe. The symphonies are dark, but only in the second does the irony more characteristic of later Weill begin to seep in. Their somber notes conjure the brooding atmosphere of recent history.

Gramophone, September 2005

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Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, September 2005

This was an "Editor's Choice" in Gramophone Magazine (09/05) where it was described as "an intriguing musical side-glance at Kurt Weill's output." The first of his two symphonies is a student work that was written in 1921 and may remind you of Paul Hindemith in a couple of places. The Gramophone reviewer said of Marin Alsop's interpretation, "I have never heard this so confidently played as here." If you find it to your tastes, it will probably require repeated listening to sort out the dense, convoluted mass of anguished, thematic material present. The second was written in 1934 just after the composer fled from Germany to escape the rising tide of Nazism. A lot of laughs, it's not; but, it's first-rate Weill and has similarities to other concurrent works of his as well as hints of what was to come. The program ends on a more mundane, but cheerful note with a concert suite from "Lady in the Dark" arranged by Robert Russell Bennett of Victory at Sea fame. The performances are highly satisfactory, the sound, excellent and the price is right.

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