An entertaining idea on paper, Weill was lacking finesse in performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom ‘Wie man sich bettet, so liegt man’ – ‘You made your bed, now lie in it’: Monica Arnó (voice), Charles Prince (piano and musical director), Evelyn Estava (violin). Sherwell Centre, University of Plymouth, 7.5.2022. (PRB)

Kurt Weill, Monica Arnó and Lotte Lenya (c) Philip R Buttall

Weill – Songs: Part I (1927-1933); Intermezzo for piano solo; Songs: Part II (1933-1950)

The Arts Institute at the University of Plymouth has been busy over the last few months. Under the auspices of the Musica Viva Concert Series, they were exploring the world of Expressionism, particularly how this relates to the music of the time.

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing the opening recital. It featured a number of piano works by Scriabin and ended with a quite scintillating performance of Schoenberg’s iconic, ground-breaking Pierrot lunaire. This closing event featured an especially fruitful collaboration between a German composer and an Austro-American singer, whose songs create a unique blend of Expressionism: Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. (They were husband and wife, twice. Their 1926 marriage ended in divorce in 1933. They remarried in 1937 and remained together until Weill’s death in 1950.)

One of the nicest things about concerts in the Musica Viva Series is a short pre-concert discussion with one or two of the participating artists, and Bob Taub (Director of Music at the Arts Institute) chairs a most genial, informal and yet eminently informative chat about the programme soon to follow.

In discussing his biopic on Kurt Weill, American-born Charles Prince lightly touched on how the idea had initially come about, and how it had grown into a standalone concert programme. His biography very much confirms his primary role of a conductor, not an instrumentalist per se, and he even alluded to this in the pre-concert discussion. He acknowledged that he was not a first-study pianist, and that his role in that capacity presented a few challenges along the way.

After a brief delay, Monica Arnó dressed in black was a stunning visual presence as she made her way onto an effectively lit stage. The venue is actually a lecture hall by day, situated at the top of what was originally a church, and so it still enjoys the natural acoustics of the original ceiling. Keeping Arnó company were Venezuelan-born violinist Evelyn Estava, Charles Prince at the Steinway Grand – and a hat-stand draped with a few props.

The programme was divided into two halves, songs from 1927-1933 and songs from 1933-1950. Midway through the first half, Prince included the 1917 Intermezzo, the composer’s only work for piano solo. From virtually the first note, my mind shot back to what Prince had said about not being a pianist first and foremost. He did not elaborate then, but his true role now – apart from the Intermezzo – would be that of accompanist. That is a completely different animal, which does not automatically go hand-in-hand with accomplished pianism. Sadly, this seemed to be the case here. From the first song, Prince appeared to pummel the accompanying repeated right-hand chords, even though this was the last thing the singer or violinist needed. This apparent lack of attention to details of balance should have been addressed in rehearsals, as this was certainly not the sole occasion it happened. To make matters worse, a microphone placed adjacent to the piano, presumably to enhance Prince’s readings from the libretto, also picked up the treble strings of the piano, to the further detriment of the overall sound balance.

There has always been a lot of debate about this venue. For the sixteen or more years when it functioned as the regular home of Plymouth Chamber Music Trust, practically every recital was a classical string quartet, piano trio or other essentially chamber ensemble, where any question of sound enhancement was an anathema. Frankly, I cannot see why any amplification was deemed necessary here, especially in the way it was implemented. Arnó’s discrete face-mike worked to a degree, but seemed to fail to catch the sibilants in her speech or singing. That was rather disappointing when she was singing in such a consonant-rich language as her native German.

The previously noted pianist’s microphone had a negative effect on the piano, but seemed to have more treble gain: consonants, particularly sibilants, and word endings, appeared far easier to discern when Prince was speaking.

The other casualty in all this was the unfortunate violinist, who, in fact, produced a lovely, golden tone, perfectly suited for the musical style. But the arrangements Estava had been given, made very little use of her obviously well-honed talents, that is, when she could be heard over the piano. There was certainly a missed opportunity, for example, at the end of the programme, as Arnó gave a customary vote of thanks, during an extra instrumental reprise of Mack the Knife. Here, a sotto voce version of Weill’s best-known song, played à la Stéphane Grappelli, could have rounded the final credits off to perfection.

In fact, I felt the whole thing was lacking in artistic direction and an all-embracing feel for performance. Naturally, Monica Arnó’s sheer professionalism oozed stage presence and flair at every moment. Indeed, it was difficult not to keep your eyes focussed on her, whether she was nonchalantly singing, perched on a bar stool, striking a few alluring poses on the piano lid, or making a brief foray into the audience. Even the manner in which she selected and wore various onstage clothing items had the hallmark of pure finesse about it, as was her eye-catching change of costume for the second half.

All in all, then, there was nothing much wrong with the actual concept, and no doubt, seen as a kind of lecture-recital, it served its purpose in introducing the audience to the life and times of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, and the unique music their collaboration engendered. But if the intention was for it to be considered equally as concert entertainment as well, then a complete redesign, overhaul and possible reappraisal in terms of stage direction and use of resources might prove the best option.

Philip R Buttall

Part I (1927-1933)
Wie man sich bettet, so liegt man
Potsdam unter den Eichen
Berlin im Licht
Nana’s Lied
Harte Nuss
Song of Mandalay
Ich bin eine arme Verwandte
Lotteri-Agent’s Tango
Wie man sich bettet, so liegt man

Part II (1933-1950)
Je ne t’aime pas
September Song
The Saga of Jenny
Speak Low
Foolish Heart
West Wind
That’s Him
Macky Messer (Mack the Knife)

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