February 04, 2016


Weill: Die Sieben Todsünden; songs from Berliner Requiem, Happy End, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, Die Dreigroschenoper. Gisela May, soprano; Peter Schreier and Hans-Joachim Rotzsch, tenors; Günther Leib, baritone; Hermann Christian Polster, bass; Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Leipzig conducted by Herbert Kegel; other ensembles conducted by Henry Krtschil and Heinz Rögner. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.

The French Influence: Music for Trumpet and Piano by Honegger, Ibert, Henri Senée, Enesco, Jolivet, Eugène Bozza, Théo Charlier and Claude Pascal. Gerard Schwarz, trumpet; Kun Woo Paik, piano. Delos. $7.99.

     It is a rare pleasure to discover, or rediscover, first-rate performances that not only display and enhance the effectiveness of the music but also provide insight into the special qualities of the performers. And to find such performances at a bargain price is a particularly rarefied form of enjoyment – the form provided by new CDs from Brilliant Classics and Delos. The Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht collaboration The Seven Deadly Sins, created in 1933 and labeled a ballet chanté, is not heard very often – and not just because all Weill/Brecht works are very much of a particular time. This one is a difficult work to perform: it is indeed a dance piece that also includes singing, and to make matters more complex or confusing, its lead roles are named Anna I and Anna II, perhaps two sisters but perhaps two parts of the same woman -- a psychological twist that the words themselves suggest. A satirical work filled with the collaborators’ typical anti-bourgeois bitterness, it uses a prologue, epilogue and seven scenes to detail a twisted, modern version of Sloth, Pride, Anger, Gluttony, Lust, Greed and Envy. Anna I repeatedly admonishes Anna II – who says very little – not to behave morally, because real life allows no room for morals. For example, Anna II becomes angry at injustice – and Anna I tells her to be more self-controlled; Anna II is initially too proud to perform provocative cabaret dances, but Anna I says she must do so in order to please the clientele and make the money that is at the foundation of the entire work (to be used to help the family build a home back in Louisiana; the family consists of a four-man chorus). Longtime Brecht singer Gisela May, who spent 30 years in Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, portrayed both Ana I and Anna II when she recorded The Seven Deadly Sins in 1966, and her smoky, burned-out voice (not really burned out, but sounding that way) fits the music exceptionally well: this is true cabaret singing, and while May does not quite match the incomparable Lotte Lenya, she has a solidity and intensity of delivery that are very nearly at Lenya’s level. Weill’s music remains as craggy and cutting as ever, and if Brecht’s words nowadays seem more like a jeremiad than a genuine social commentary, that means only that we have – perhaps – discovered a new set of deadly sins. May shows her versatility in this repertoire with a series of additional recordings of the same vintage. There are two excerpts from Berliner Requiem that were recorded in 1968, plus a series of 1967 recordings from Happy End, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and The Threepenny Opera. The three songs from the last of these are the least satisfactory readings: neither Barbara-Song nor Seeräuber Jenny hits quite the right emotional pitch – they seem altogether too casual – although Song von de sexuellen Hörigkeit has the requisite level of sarcasm. The two Berliner Requiem excerpts and the two Mahagonny songs are fine, but it is in the excerpts from the almost forgotten Happy End that May really displays both her vocal prowess and her characterization abilities. One song from this failed musical is among its creators’ best-known pieces: Surabaya Johnny, which May delivers simply splendidly – here she really is on par with Lenya. The three other songs crackle and sparkle just as they should, too: Bilbao-Song, Was die Herren Matrosen sagen and Ballade von der Höllen-Lili. However, the one great disappointment of this release becomes apparent here: there are no lyrics given to any of the material, and no links to any online locations for finding them. The words of The Seven Deadly Sins are reasonably simple to locate, as are those of The Threepenny Opera, and Mahagonny can be tracked down with a bit of effort. But not so Berliner Requiem and Happy End, and anyone who listens to May’s splendid and pointed vocalizing and does not readily speak idiomatic German is going to believe, quite rightly, that he or she is missing a great deal of what is going on. There is so much to celebrate in this re-release that it is a shame to have to draw attention to its one great shortcoming; but it is nevertheless a wonderful recording by a singer whose handling of the material is absolutely top-notch.

     The material is far more urbane but no less involving in its own way on the CD entitled The French Influence. This is a revelatory disc for anyone who knows conductor Gerard Schwarz (born 1947) solely for his orchestral work. For Schwarz started out in music not on the podium but as a trumpeter – and a very, very accomplished one. Back in 1971, he and fellow Juilliard student Kun Woo Paik recorded some 40 minutes of material by French composers, all of it short and most of it very little known. It is this recording that has now been re-released, and it is a joy to hear. No one will confuse anything here with profound music: these are pleasantries, salon pieces one and all. Yet every one gives Schwarz an opportunity to display his expressive abilities, his virtuosity, his excellent breath control, his sensitivity to various styles, and his wonderful sense of rhythm. This last characteristic comes to the fore, for example, in Ibert’s very short Impromptu, one of the composer’s jazz-influenced works. Even shorter and even more virtuosic – at less than 90 seconds, the briefest piece here – Jolivet’s Air de Bravoure is instantly intriguing and is over all too soon. Honegger’s Intrada and Enesco’s Légende give Schwarz and Paik chances to explore the trumpet-piano connection at somewhat greater length, while Senée’s rather old-fashioned Concertino offers three charming movements and an interesting contrast with Charlier’s Solo de Concours, whose conclusion is more Russian than French and in comparatively unusual 5/4 meter. Bozza’s eight-minute Caprice and Pascal’s two-minute Capriccio also make for interesting contrasts: both require considerable virtuosity of technique but are more than simple display pieces, offering a really good trumpeter several chances to showcase the ability to vary the instrument’s sound capabilities in different sections. Schwarz brings pep and pizzazz to the music when appropriate, lyricism and lovely flow when they are fitting, and shows himself throughout the disc to have total command of his instrument and to be quite capable of having fun with it. Listeners will have fun here, too, not only with the music but also with the discovery – or rediscovery – of the earlier performing years of a musician who became far better known in a role very different from the one he fills on this CD.

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