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Songs of the Berlin Cabaret 1920-1929
Jody Karin Applebaum/Marc-André Hamelin
Recorded 1997
HELICON HE 1033 [69.01]

Germany was totally traumatised in the humiliating aftermath of the First World War, and the time was ripe for cultural upheaval. In the field of 'serious' music there was the flowering of the so-called Second Viennese School of composers (Schoenberg and his disciples Berg and Webern), while the country's capital, Berlin, witnessed the revolutionary productions at the Kroll Opera then under Klemperer's musical direction. Left-wing politics flourished and newspapers threw off the shackles of censorship. In the field of cabaret theatre Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were collaborating, and the cosmopolitan flavour which permeated all aspects of the cultural arts embraced among others, American jazz. Dances such as the Foxtrot, Shimmy, and Charleston, all characterised by the expression 'The Roaring Twenties', were the rage, with one of the most celebrated cabarets the 'Schall und Rauch' (Noise and Smoke) leading the pack from its founding in 1919 by the famous producer/director Max Reinhardt (to whom coincidentally this reviewer is distantly related).

Friedrich Hollaender was one of the most prolific songwriters of the 1920s and, after rather unlikely composition studies with Humperdinck, became the house composer (and frequently lyricist) for the 'Schall und Rauch' club. The songs became the means for satire, political point-scoring, social criticism, yet they were also shrouded in a smoky, champagne seductive atmosphere with all its implicit and explicit eroticism. Between 1925 and 1930 Hollaender wrote a dozen revues from which these songs come, but his greatest claim to fame (and a later passport to work in Hollywood when he fled Nazi Germany as the whole edifice collapsed) was to write the music for Josef von Sternberg's film 'The Blue Angel' in 1930 in which the young Marlene Dietrich shot to stardom. If you listen to recordings of the day you'll notice that the singers speak more than they sing (epitomised to a certain extent by Lotte Lenya's recordings of Weill/Brecht) so that they become virtual accompanied monologues - this recording largely sets that to right, there is comparatively little parlando style delivery. Hollaender was an excellent pianist and the accompaniments he wrote are expertly crafted, the melodies tuneful and by turns wistful without too much sentimentality but plenty of tongue in cheek.

My problem with this CD is the balance; it seems to be completely the wrong way round with the vocal line too often hidden behind the piano sound. As a result the text is often hard to discern. Jody Karin Applebaum is evidently a committed performer, steeped in the music and its style, and, assuming she put the whole project together, eminently knowledgeable (fourteen of the tracks are first recordings). Perhaps she is too much of a trained oratorio singer. Her German (when audible) is impeccable, and her pacing just right; but the voice lacks sufficient variety of colour on the sixteen of the eighteen tracks on which she sings. At her best she is sublime in the best number 'Lady in white'. For those remaining two tracks she leaves her pianist Marc-André Hamelin to a couple of solo numbers, and (leaving aside his international reputation as a concert virtuoso) what a fine pianist he is, not just as soloist but in all the accompaniments throughout the disc. Phrasing, pedalling, shading of tone, the subtle wit of the musical line and its idiosyncratic rhythms, as well as the palette of tonal colour he produces from the excellent (uncredited) instrument make this a disc worth buying. Despite my reservations about the singing, I do recommend it. It's the engineers who are really to blame.

Christopher Fifield 



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