The Berlin Philharmonic recreates ‘The Golden Twenties’ of Moka Efti brilliantly in an evening of jazz and cabaret

GermanyGermany Weill, Wolpe, Seiber – ‘A night at the Moka Efti’: Dagmar Manzel (narrator/singer), Berlin Philharmonic / Michael Hasel (conductor). Performed at the Philharmonie Berlin and livestreamed via the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, 23.2.2021. (GT)

Berlin Philharmonic’s ‘A night at the Moka Efti’ (c) Frederike van der Straeten

Kurt WeillBerlin Lit Up; Little Threepenny Music; Panamanian Suite

Stefan WolpeSuite from the Twenties

Mátyás SeiberTwo Jazzolettes

This penultimate event in the ‘The Golden Twenties’ online festival (click here) was billed as ‘A night at the Moka Efti’. In his introduction, the orchestra’s First Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley explained that in this dazzlingly entertaining decade, the Moka Efti (named after its Greek owner) palais located on a corner of Friedrichstrasse was known for its exotic Turkish and Egyptian salons that contrasted with flashy modernist interiors where the nouveau riche of Berlin was offered exotic entertainment and the best of modern dance music in true hedonistic style. The night club featured prominently in the hit German TV series Babylon Berlin.

The opening music Berlin Lit Up was written for a military band and its premiere was given by the Ensemble Modern under Hermann Scherchen in 1928. The piece was commissioned for the opening of the ‘Berlin im Licht’ exhibition celebrating the electric lighting of streets and squares of the capital, and the opening of the new power station in Charlottenburg. Following the brilliant success of The Threepenny Opera earlier in 1928, Kurt Weill became the most celebrated composer in Germany. Berlin Lit Up is a slow foxtrot with rather unsophisticated lyrics written by the composer himself. The song attempts to be upbeat with its bluesy jazz rhythms yet emerges rather sad and wistful. Michael Hasel (flautist of the Berlin Philharmonic) was the conductor, and the song – with just a brief five-minute span – was very finely and poignantly sung by the celebrated actress and singer of the Komische Oper, Dagmar Manzel.

The Panamanian Suite dates from 1934 when Weill was already an émigré in Paris where he wrote the music for Jacques Deval’s play Marie Galante at the Théâtre de Paris in December 1934. It was only in 1988 that this music was rediscovered, and HK Gruber helped in reconstructing the Tango habañera for performance and recording of ‘Berlin im Licht’. The first of the four instrumental numbers from the stage production, Introduction and Tango, employed three saxophonists, and a small string section, plus banjo, and percussion in a rather wistful tango in which the clarinettist Amelie Bertlweiser played a beautifully exotic solo. This was quickly followed by the March de l’armée panaméenne, with the two trombones and xylophone bringing bright harmony rising to a high pitch before dying away. In the Tango habañera (also known as Youkali), the banjo was prominent together with the saxophones, with a very tranquil trumpet solo from Stefan Schoch in true jazz style. In the concluding section, the Tempo di Foxtrot was bright and upbeat with banjo, the wind, piano, and accordion creating a magnificently fine ‘feel good’ bluesy idiom.

In the brief interval, Dagmar Manzel recited Josephine Baker’s ‘Memories’ about life in Berlin during this remarkable period. Mátyás Seiber was a Hungarian musician who studied with Zoltán Kodály who moved to Germany where he taught in Frankfurt in two spells during which he worked on a boat playing the cello and discovering American jazz. Returning to Frankfurt he started composing jazz music, among which was his Two Jazzolettes which was performed first in Munich in 1929. He became an important teacher in Britain following his arrival here after the Nazi takeover in Germany. A whole generation of leading British composers studied with Seiber after Michael Tippett appointed him to teach at the Morley College before the war. Seiber’s Two Jazzolettes opened with its two juxtaposed allegro movements with piano, saxophones, trumpet, and clarinet producing light-hearted blues switching with swing in twelve-tone rows. The music was immensely thrilling in its startling syncopations juxtaposed by a gentle beat from the drums, and shrieks from the brass, with disconcerting piano chords, and a lazy intonation from the muted trumpet all ending with a brilliant finish.

In the break between different pieces, Dagmar Manzel recited a poem about the Great War by Trude Hesterberg. Here was a poignant moment when we reflected on the horrors of those who survived the war, enjoyed a decade of enlightenment in twenties Berlin, yet then fell victim to the Nazis and the catastrophe of the Second World War. Stefan Wolpe is an almost forgotten musician from the period, and this suite arranged by Geert van Keulen underlines his distinctive modernism. Following the collapse of the Weimar Republic, he sought refuge in Russia before ending up with Anton Berg in Vienna. His Suite from the Twenties embraces different musical idioms, jazz, cabaret, and twelve-tone music. The opening March was typically strident, yet rather melancholy with banjo, saxophones, two violins, bass clarinet, and clarinet, trombone, cello, and piano followed by Tango for Irma, with a parody of a poignant reflective idiom amid jazz syncopations. The Charleston was eccentric and muted – as if a parody of the American dance – the Tango was elegiac in embracing a shadowy, nocturnal world. The Rag-caprice was colourful, while Blues continued in the idiom of parody and irony.

Dagmar Manzel recited Lotte Lenya’s memories ‘Getting to Know Bertolt Brecht’ speaking of the writer constantly noting down texts while sharing his ambivalent, bizarre lifestyle with his several lovers in twenties Berlin.

The concert closed with Weill’s suite based on his celebrated The Threepenny Opera. The background to this operatic offshoot was in Otto Klemperer asking Weill to write an orchestral suite for a Mozartian wind band ensemble. The suite is in eight movements and illustrates the most attractive pieces plus some extra music to make up for the absence of singers. The Overture was melodious, and dramatic with fine playing from the clarinet of Amelie Bertlweiser and notably the saxophones. The Ballad of Mack the Knife recreated the composer’s most popular harmonies with its bright, upbeat charming tune – especially fine from Stefan Schultz on the trombone. The third extract, instead of song, was extraordinary for the clarinet and trumpet solos. The Ballad of the Easy Life was full of gorgeous playing from the brass, piano, and banjo with jazz blues, and again the clarinet all in foot tapping style. The mood in Polly’s Song was somewhat menacing from the wind, yet the clarinet introduced a seductive phrase accompanied by the flute and guitar, in the Tango Ballad, the saxophone, drums, and accordion were magnificent while in the Cannon Song, there was some feisty musicmaking, especially the brilliant bass trombone of Schulz giving a swagger and swing to the piece. Lastly in the Threepenny Finale, a sultry harmony led to a reprise of the themes with an upsurge in tone lead by the tubular bells, as if celebrant, yet the saxophone and clarinet were melancholy before rising to the coda and a resplendent finale.

It is unlikely that this music has ever been better performed than on this occasion, yet the surroundings were possibly the most surreal, playing this great joyful, yet sometimes unhappy, music in the vast empty hall of the Philharmonie Berlin and not in a cabaret theatre or night club or with the full audience it deserved, sadly a reflection of the challenging times we live in today. ‘The Golden Twenties’ online season concludes on 27 February with Christian Thielemann conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a programme of Busoni, Hindemith and Johann and Richard Strauss.

Gregor Tassie

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