WEILL: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 / Lady in the Dark - Symphonic Nocturne (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/ Marin Alsop) (Naxos: 8.557481)
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Kurt Weill (1900-1950)
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 Symphonic Nocturne
While he left as extensive and as significant an output ofstage-works as any composer active during the first halfof the twentieth century, the contribution of Kurt Weillto orchestral and instrumental genres was largelyrestricted to his formative years as a composer from1918 to 1924. Although he had attempted opera inseveral unfinished and now lost projects during andafter the first World War, Weill's earliest major worksare a String Quartet (1918), a Suite for Orchestra(1919) and a Cello Sonata (1920). Yet an urge towardsmore concrete expression was inevitable in the socialclimate of post-war Germany, with political left andright fighting for supremacy as the country movedshakily towards a republic. Something of this turmoilcan be gauged from the Symphony Weill completed in1921, but which remained unperformed - and was formany years thought lost or destroyed before beinglocated, surprisingly, in an Italian convent - until 1956.
Until the summer of 1920 Weill held employmentas conductor of the opera company at L??denscheid, atwhich time he applied to join the masterclass incomposition that Ferruccio Busoni was to direct at thePrussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. The youngest ofthe applicants, Weill was accepted for a three-yearperiod, starting officially in July 1921, and it is temptingto see this 'First' Symphony as the budding composer'sstatement of intent. Around this time Weill wasapproached for incidental music to a drama by thesocialist playwright Johannes Becher; though this cameto nothing, the play's title, Workers, Peasants andSoldiers: A People's Awakening to God, might almosthave been intended for that of the symphony (aquotation from the play was seemingly inscribed on thetitle-page that Weill later discarded).
Although it plays continuously, the Symphony'ssingle movement is divided into three main sections thattogether outline, but do not emulate a classicalsymphonic format. Similarly its tonal orientation avoidsa secure key-centre almost as a point of principle. Thefirst section, Allegro vivace, begins with a sequence ofgrinding, dissonant chords whose tonal ambiguity is topervade the whole work. The introduction comes to analmost prayerful pause, then a more agitated mood setsin. This allegro-type music has more expressive musicas contrast, before the opening chords re-emerge.
Anxious elaboration of the ideas ensues, followed by apensive interlude. This leads into the work's centralsection, Andante religioso, the spiritual ambience ofwhich is of a distinctly ironic cast. Twice the openingchordal sequence is touched upon, lending an ominousfeeling to this otherwise inward-looking music. Anearnest chorale-like idea presages the 'ChoraleFantasy' which forms the final section. This buildsgradually, by way of a beatific passage for solo stringsand wind, to a climax where the opening chords informa would-be apotheosis. Underlying doubt has not beendispelled, however, and the work ends with a stark,fatalistic cadence.
It seems quite probable that Busoni, having seen theautograph of the Symphony, referred Weill to his formerpupil and sometime assistant Philipp Jarnach forintensive studies in counterpoint. Certainly the worksfollowing in its wake, notably the Divertimento and theSinfonia Sacra, both composed in 1922 and firstperformed by no less than the Berlin PhilharmonicOrchestra, with musical imagery both sardonic andapocalyptic, offer a clarification of the earlier work'saesthetic. Then, in the Concerto for Violin and WindInstruments of 1924, Weill made the breakthrough to amore objective manner of writing, akin to the directionthen being pursued, albeit to very different ends, byHindemith and Stravinsky. His commitment to thetheatre meant that concert music as such then disappearsfrom Weill's output. Excepting the KleineDreigroschenmusik suite, compiled from DieDreigroschenoper in 1929, his only other orchestralwork is that known today as the Second Symphony.
The coming to power of the Third Reich in January1933 made it all but impossible for Weill's works to bestaged in Germany, leading to his departure for Pariswith the sketches of a symphony commissioned by thenoted patron of new music, Princess Edmond dePolignac. Completed early the following year, this'Second' Symphony (not designated as such by Weill,who never numbered his previous symphonic effort)was duly given by Bruno Walter in Amsterdam on 11thOctober 1934, and repeated in New York thatDecember, on each occasion to unenthusiastic criticaland public response. It then languished for over threedecades, and only since the 1980s has begun to find aplace in the orchestral repertoire.
Whereas its predecessor was in three interlinkedsections, the Second Symphony consists of threeseparate movements which form a straightforward fastslow-fast sequence. The first of these has a Sostenutointroduction the rapid-fire motif of which takes hold ofthe orchestra with insistence. A bitter-sweet trumpetmelody leads into the Allegro molto, with its incisivefirst theme and an anxiously expressive rejoinder. Aftera brusque codetta, the music passes through a tensedevelopment which culminates in a forceful climax,then a reprise which varies the two main ideas. This isinterrupted by a nostalgic recall of the introduction,before rounding off the movement as before. Thecentral Largo opens with a theme for whole orchestra,its distinctive rhythmic profile seldom out of earshot. Amock-solemn trombone melody is elaborated in morelyrical though hardly untroubled terms, leading to theclimactic return of the main theme. The lyrical musicproceeds in an appreciably varied guise, including anelegant flute solo over pizzicato strings, before itsstrenuous culmination is cut short, leaving the initialtheme to end the movement in wistful regret. TheAllegro vivace finale sets off with a hectic woodwindidea which recurs on two occasions. Between themcomes a vamping theme for strings and a marchepisode, by turns angular and mocking. The coda harksback to that far-off trumpet melody from near thework's beginning, before hurtling on to a breathlessclose.
The evolution of Weill's music after he settled inthe United States in 1935 is that of his reconciling hisown dramatic instincts with the indigenous Americanmusic-theatre, above all, the Broadway musical.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Lady in theDark, his 1940 collaboration with Moss Hart and IraGershwin that set new standards for a Broadway showin dramatic and musical integration. As he was the onlysuch composer to undertake his own orchestration, it ishardly surprising that the score exhibits all of Weill'stheatrical hallmarks, largely retained in the SymphonicNocturne arranged by Robert Russell Bennett. Most ofthe show's principal numbers are featured, not leastMy Ship, the 'idee fixe' which comes into focus for themain protagonist as the psychoanalysis she undergoesgradually unlocks her inhibitions about the past. Thepiece, moreover, makes a worthwhile addition to anorchestral output not otherwise represented in the musicof Weill's American years.Richard Whitehouse