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Recordings

Kurt Weill on Broadway: Songs and Orchestrations by Kurt Weill
06 Apr 2007

Kurt Weill on Broadway: Songs and Orchestrations by Kurt Weill

Kurt Weill’s perennial appeal can be attributed to various factors, not the least of which is the genuine craft of his stage works.

Kurt Weill on Broadway: Songs and Orchestrations by Kurt Weill

Thomas Hampson, Elizabeth Futral, Jerry Hadley, Jeanne Lehman, London Sinfonietta

EMI Classics 3-58245-2 [CD]

$11.99  Click to buy

This is apparent in the songs that are already familiar to audiences around the world, and it is also borne out in the less familiar pieces collected in this recording. Beyond familiar songs that have been performed by various singers for over half a century, the duets and other ensembles that he wrote for the American stage are equally accessible. Originally recorded in 1994, this CD entitled Kurt Weill on Broadway is a compilation of some strong pieces by Weill that are have not achieved the popularity associated with some of his other music.

This recording includes a selection of pieces from One Touch of Venus, Knickerbocker Holiday, The Firebrand of Florence (prior to the complete recording that was subsequently made), Love Life and Johnny Johnson. In choosing music for this recording, the fine Weill interpreter John McGlinn avoided some of the obvious pieces like the “September Song” to call attention instead to other fine songs from Knickerbocker Holiday, “It Was Never You” and “How Can You Tell an American?” Despite its title, “It Was Never You” is one particular back-handed lovesongs that merits attention for the careful blending of lyrics and music that transcend the play for which it was intended. Sung by Thomas Hampson and Elizabeth Futral in the roles of Brom and Tina, this is song that some have attempted as a solo piece, which does not work as well as in the intended in the musical. The second selection from Knickerbocker Holiday is kind of character piece, “How Can You Tell an American?” here performed articulately by Hampson and Jerry Hadley without tipping their hands on the affinities that this song has with the pre-World War II sentiment and the patrimony of the piece with the kind of list-songs archetypically part of Gilbert and Sullivan’s idiom.

Yet it is in the extensive selection from The Firebrand of Florence that this recording makes its mark. A work that as known in its day, it was eclipsed by other pieces for the Broadway stage that followed it. Yet the music selected here suggests that The Firebrand of Florence deserves further attention. Closer, perhaps, to the more formally rich tradition of operetta than the Broadway musical of Weill’s day, this work is a comic adaptation of the same story that Berlioz fashioned into his opera Benvenuto Cellini. Bowing to the conventions of the Broadway stage rather than the operatic tradition, Weill creates some vivid pieces that bring the sensational biography of the famous artist to life. The ensembles and ensuing counterpoint anticipates in some ways the style that Bernstein would use in his own quintessential operetta Candide. While the score of Weill’s work has its demands, the rewards are worthwhile, with vocal textures and soaring melodies that transcend some of the works of his contemporaries. While the music remains strong, so too do the lyrics echo strongly in various pieces that convey the story of Cellini and the character of Florence, the setting for the work. The sometimes forced rhymes that contribute to the humor of the score are performed squarely, as they should be, and the result is convincing. Like some recent recordings of works like Kiss Me Kate, the use of trained singers for this work help to bring out the merits of Weill's score.

As to the other excerpts, like the evocative “Westwind” with which the collection opens, the performance of a singer of the caliber of Thomas Hampson conveys the nuances of a solo number that is atypical of Broadway convention, yet imbued with the lyricism and substance that allows Weill's music to endure. The sustained lines and the choral interjections effectively capture the sense of yearning implicit in the text of this piece from One Touch of Venus. As familiar as this number be to some audiences, Hampson's interpretation stands well with others who have recorded this song.

In addition, Elizabeth Futral’s performances are equally solid and engaging. Her duet with Hampson in “It Never Was You” is representative of her efforts, and the various excerpts from The Firebrand of Florence in which she sings the role of Angela are noteworthy for the tone she achieves. Never arch or self-consciously operatic, Futral brings a clear and ringing tone that carries the English-language text well, and this particularly evident in the excerpts from Love Life. Moreover, Hampson’s continuing efforts in promoting American song will find a complement in these pieces Weill contributed to the American theater that reflect both the native genre and also the composer’s own genius in grafting his style to it.

Beyond the presentation of some of the less familiar theater songs of Weill, the subtitle of the recording calls attention to an important aspect of the composer’s craft. Unlike other Broadway composers of his time, Weill pursued his own orchestrations, rather than consign the scoring to individuals who assisted composers of musicals in scoring their music for the pit orchestra. Weill’s hand in the orchestrations lends an authenticity to the music that puts an emphasis on the tone colors used. Thus, the ephemeral sounds of “Westwind” suggest some tone painting in that piece, just as the sometimes homespun sonorities of “Who Is Samuel Cooper?” from Love Life hint at the element of Americana essential to the setting of that musical. Weill's sense of the appropriate orchestral effect emerges clearly in these performances, that benefit from the masterful hand of McGlinn leading the London Sinfonietta.

McGlinn’s notes to the recording call attention to the American Kurt Weill, a distinction that can be, at times, artificial, but certainly confirms the composer’s ability to have assimilated the culture of the United States. While some other composers who fled to the United States may have failed to merge their styles with those of their adopted land, Weill's efforts demonstrate his own success in adapting his efforts to the very American form of musical theater. Those who have not yet encountered this recording will find that it has much to offer in the fine selection from Weill’s works for the American stage.

James Zychowicz

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