Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins Outclasses Other Items in BBC Symphony Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Korngold, Weill, and others: Storm Large (singer), Hudson Shad, BBC Symphony Orchestra / James Gaffigan (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 23.11.2016. (MB)

Korngold – Symphony in F-sharp
Walter JurmannVeronika, der Lenz ist da
Dimitri TiomkinHigh Noon: ‘Do not forsake me, O my darlin’’Weill – A Touch of Venus: ‘Speak Low’
WeillKlopsliedJurmann/Bronisław Kaper – A Day at the Races: ‘All God’s Children Got Rhythm’; The Seven Deadly Sins 

In the world’s present parlous state, Brecht (Weill too, perhaps) speaks to us more clearly, more sharply than most. Donald Trump could pretty much have sprung from the pages of Mahagonny, or indeed The Seven Deadly Sins. The fine performance of that masterly ballet chanté which was the necessary performance in this BBC Symphony Orchestra performance. The rest I could petty much take or leave, although there were clearly admirers in the audience.

When first hearing Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp (in the BBC Philharmonic recording with Edward Downes), I rather liked it. It must have been years since I had last heard the piece; I cannot say that I had missed it greatly, and indeed found it something of a bore on this occasion. It was a well-enough upholstered bore, yet I did not find the material justified the length. In the first movement, it took a while for the orchestra to achieve a good balance, although the Barbican acoustic should probably take some blame for that. (Thanks to the Government, by the way, for scuppering the plan for a decent concert hall in London!) James Gaffigan went to considerable extremes of tempo, but held the movement together pretty well. A certain cinematic quality to its progress was not inappropriate, nor was a certain sonic similarity to the ‘heroic’ Prokofiev of the Fifth Symphony. Transitions were well handled in the scherzo, though ensemble was not always so precise as it might have been. I liked the languorous quality to its trio; Gaffigan’s tempo, however, sometimes brought the music to near-standstill. A Brucknerian quality was apparent in the slow movement, which received a warmly neo-Romantic reading, not lacking in necessary malice. The finale proved colourful, but a well-paced performance could not disguise its excess of repetitions.

The second half opened with a number of close-harmony pieces from the American group, Hudson Shad. I am not convinced that concert-hall listening is really quite right for such music: perhaps they would be better off in a bar, with drinks and chatter. (But then, I was never able to understand Cambridge choirs’ enthusiasm for them; I longed to hear more Byrd instead…) My patience for Kurt Jurmann’s hit Veronika, der Lenz ist da was limited indeed, but others seemed to enjoy its ever-so-mild camp. Likewise the other Jurmann song, and the two contributions from Dimitri Tiomkin. ‘Speak Low’ from A Touch of Venus served to reinforce my prejudice that Weill’s music lost almost all interest upon emigration across the Atlantic. The short Klopslied, however, was recognisably the work of Busoni’s pupil, albeit with a healthy dose of surrealism thrown in. The gentlemen did not overplay it, thereby letting its anarchic wit speak for itself. It was a real find (for me, that is).

For The Seven Deadly Sins, Gaffigan and the orchestra returned, joined by Storm Large, a singer with real presence, indeed real star quality. For a performance in English (the translation by Auden and Kallman), one is better putting out of one’s mind the world of Lotte Lenya. That was surprisingly easy, for Large, ably accompanied, made the work very much her own, in a subtle, sharply observed, finely enunciated performance. She could act, but did not need to draw attention to the fact, just as she could sing and dance, again without any need for underlining. The shedding of her overcoat spoke volumes; so did the chill of those spoken Anna II statements: ‘Right, Anna’. With a wind-heavy band that sounded just right, with Gaffigan unfailingly adopting tempi that sounded equally right, and with just the proper sense, from time to time, of a little rhythmic drag, Weill permitted Brecht to speak. Dance rhythms pointed to Weill as ironic heir to Mahler. Much orchestral material reminded us that this was the composer of that magnificent Second Symphony. (What a pity we had not heard that in the first half instead! Or indeed the Violin Concerto.) Hudson Shad were on excellent form too, their ‘Family’ often sounding very much of a Neue Sachlichkeit world, the bite of Brecht’s text – ‘Shameless hoarders earn themselves a bad name’ – drawing blood. The exploration of sins had a properly cumulative effect as far as ‘Envy’, after which the Epilogue proved a further study in alienation. They were going home to Louisana, to that little home beside the Mississippi. ‘Right, Anna!’

Mark Berry

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