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Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) (1930)
Opera in 3 Acts. Text by Bertolt Brecht
Jenny, Lotte Lenya (mezzo); Jimmy, Heinz Sauerbaum (ten); Mrs. Begbick, Gisela Litz (mezzo); Fatty, Peter Markwort (ten); Trinity Moses, Horst Günther (bar); Joe, Sigmund Roth (bass)
Orchestra and Choir of North German Radio/Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggerberg
Recorded in Hamburg, Germany. 1956
SONY CLASSICAL SM2K 91184 [2CDs: 61.42+74.18]


The very brief and inadequate leaflet information accompanying what is a seminal recording of this work states, of Weill’s first collaboration with Brecht (1928), ‘Both are clearly influenced by what was then modern jazz and by the then entirely original and unacademic style of Kurt Weill, who went his own way in the choice of instrumentation’. The leaflet goes on to devote a mere six and one half lines to a synopsis of the plot! This is compounded by the fact that the track listing omits any names of the characters singing.

For many people the name Weill is more associated with the ‘Cabaret Songs’ sung by Ute Lemper (on Decca). In fact Weill studied composition with Humperdinck, and later, Busoni, getting stage experience as a chorus director and later as intendant at the small theatre at Lüdenscheid. The composer’s first stage works involved various librettists prior to his collaboration with Brecht which commenced with ‘Mahagonny’ (1927), essentially a singspiel, and continued with ‘Die Dreigroschenoper’ (The Threepenny Opera) of 1928 and which topically transferred ‘The Beggars Opera’ (1728 by John Gay) to the Berlin of two centuries later. This work was a pointer to the future of the Weill/Brecht collaboration into the moral and political operas of ‘Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny’ (1930), ‘Der Jasager’ (1930) and ‘Die Bürgschaft’ (1932). Forced out of Nazi Germany, Weill settled in America in 1935, after which he wrote some musical comedy and light opera of which ‘Down in the Valley’ (1948) and ‘Street Scene’ (1949) are the most notable.

The ‘City of Mahagonny’ is really a development of the ‘singspiel’ of three years earlier and concerns the love affair of Jenny and Jimmy, which is based on cash as well as affection. It takes place in Mahagonny, a place where material pleasure and hedonism rule, but with all money taken from the men’s pockets. When Jimmy cannot pay for his drinks he is tried and sentenced to death. It is not long before the anarchy destroys the inhabitants of the city. The importance of this recording is the link of the performance of Jenny by Lotte Lenya (b.1898) who became Weill’s wife. A considerable actress rather than a trained singer, her links were with the style of Berlin in 1930, and Weill’s requirements for the part, are reflected in her performance. Her mezzo-ish timbre has come inextricably to define so much interpretation of the composer’s work. Her characteristic voice can be heard (CD1 tr.3) rendering ‘Rasch wuchs’ (Oh, show us the way’ or Alabama song) where she transposes down; but not, I hasten to add, to the extent she did as Jenny on the recording of ‘The Threepenny Opera’ of 1952, a part that she created. Like so much of the rest of the ‘sung’ pieces, this is part ‘parlando’, or sing-speech. Critical comment on the singing skills of the cast is irrelevant in this idiom as long as they convey the moods and moments of the work; they can and do!

The 1956 mono recording is rather restricted and boxy with the voices well forward. The original issue was one of those that CBS made of Weill’s work in the 1950s featuring Lotte Lenya, and can be considered of historical importance to the recorded archive. After that period, Weill’s works were largely neglected as far as recordings were concerned until a clutch of issues on Decca and TER in the early nineties. These have their strengths but this issue has an authenticity that makes it essential listening for those interested in the genre. Pity though about the poor leaflet information.

Robert J Farr


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