September 29, 2005


Weill: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Lady in the Dark: Symphonic Nocturne (arr. Robert Russell Bennett).  Marin Alsop conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $7.99.

     The major musical products in the short life of Kurt Weill (1900-1950) were theatrical: The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Silverlake and many others.  But Weill did some interesting orchestral writing, too, primarily in his early 20s, and created a single mature symphony – the one now known as No. 2.

     The works on this CD fit exceptionally well with the conducting style of Marin Alsop.  She is a conductor highly attentive to detail but frequently lacking in a “big picture” view of a piece; she is also a strong advocate of 20th-century music.  She does a very fine job with Weill’s episodic symphonies, which meander rather than forming cohesive structures.  The one now called No. 1 (Weill himself did not number the symphonies) dates to 1921.  It is in a single long movement built around a series of highly dissonant chords that prevent the listener from forming any tonal orientation and that recur throughout the work’s three loosely defined sections and at its end.  Alsop lets the music flow naturally through multiple tempo changes, never trying to impose more order than Weill himself did.  This is an effective performance – although the symphony itself does not seem to have much to say or offer much insight into Weill’s later, more distinctive style.

     Symphony No. 2 dates to 1934 and is the only major non-theatrical work of Weill’s maturity.  Many of its themes and much of its instrumentation have a “Weill sound,” such as a first-movement trumpet theme that has close kin in The Threepenny Opera.  The second and longest movement starts with the sort of unusual rhythm in which Weill specialized, and even though marked Largo, contains a forceful midsection with strong rhythms that Alsop highlights quite nicely.  The finale features angular themes that also have a theatrical sound.  Alsop takes each element of this work as it comes, revealing the fragmented nature of the movements’ building blocks without trying to force the symphony into greater unity.  The result is an effective performance that does not try to give the work real depth or cohesiveness.

     Lady in the Dark was a 1940 collaboration among Weill, Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin – an attempt to bring dramatic cohesiveness to Broadway in the days before Oklahoma!  Robert Russell Bennett’s six-movement concert suite contains some heady music, notably a march and a tumblers’ dance, though there is no profundity here.  Alsop treats the suite as an extended encore that, if it does not contain Weill’s best music, is certainly worth an occasional hearing.

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