By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008
A few months ago, asked to name my musical guilty pleasures on a New York radio show, I cited a track by the Comedian Harmonists, the phenomenally successful 1930s-era German vocal sextet. I'm no longer so sure this counts as a guilty pleasure. Like so many genres of popular 20th-century music, this area is increasingly subject to what one might call classical-music-ization: Like classic jazz or old-time Broadway, it's become an object of study, something one might encounter in the academy, something that people feel needs to be learned.
The concert I saw Tuesday night at Lisner Auditorium might have been designed to demonstrate this point. Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester, performing a true-to-period program of German hits of the 1920s and 1930s (including a couple made famous by the Comedian Harmonists), were the very model of an ongoing venture in historically informed performance.
"Historically informed performance" (HIP) is a term generally used for early-music groups. But it certainly applies to Raabe. For the last 20 years, he and the Palast Orchester (the translation "Palace Orchestra" doesn't adequately convey the sense of period and place) have been re-creating not only the music but the very sound of the 1930s. That is: They don't just sing old hits ("Bei mir bist Du Schön," "Cheek to Cheek") in the original arrangements. ("Singin' in the Rain" is offered not in the 1950s movie version but one from the 1920s.) Instead, Raabe (on vocals) and his 12-piece band (brass, violin, banjo, piano, percussion) actually get the hard-edged, metallic sound familiar from recordings of the period.
The whole evening is a studied exercise in reproduction, from Raabe's debonair look -- tall and thin, in white tie and tails and with hair slicked back, he projects a choirboy innocence flicked ever so carefully with moments of mischief -- to the sound system, which gives even the violin the tinny edge of an old radio broadcast. Everything is calculated. Tuesday night's program differed from the group's 2007 concert at Carnegie Hall, recorded and available as a CD for sale in the lobby, only in that two songs on the CD were omitted, and one of the encores was different. Even Raabe's spoken banter with the audience was reproduced word for word.
Not that it wasn't entertaining. Introducing the Comedian Harmonists hit "Mein kleiner grüner Kaktus," he briefly outlined the plot -- cactus falls from balcony onto neighbor's head -- and added, "This song is still very popular in Germany." There was applause from the audience, which contained many German speakers. "Because," he continued, pausing for effect, "we still think this situation is funny." And the house erupted in laughter.
What's fascinating is Raabe's vocal technique, which draws on sounds and colors you don't often hear these days. A natural baritone, he pitches his singing voice high, relying on a nasal head tone with a bit of a snarl behind it, and then rising -- a born crooner -- to a soft white-colored falsetto calculated to melt your heart. That snarl, and that white high head voice, were arrows in most singers' quivers in the early 20th century. An obvious comparison is Josef Schmidt, the petite and popular tenor who died in a Swiss refugee camp in 1942, but you can hear similar effects even on some recordings of Caruso, who died in 1921.
Partly for comic effect, Raabe keeps his speaking voice very low, a dark rumble contrasting with all that heady top; and he sometimes delves into this lower register when singing, which gives an impression of enormous vocal extension. The only time his approach didn't quite work was when singing Franz Lehar's tenor showpiece "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz;" we are so used to hearing the high notes ring out that the falsetto top here seemed pale.
If I haven't made it clear yet, the evening is a lot of fun. The program is carefully studied but also artfully varied, casting its net wide, from Cole Porter to Kurt Weill, from Lehar to Marx Brothers movies. The band blends musical talent and slapstick camp; individual players double on sax and violin, or take little singing roles, now in a marvelously schmaltzy vocal quartet ("In einem kühlen Grund"), now as the Three Little Pigs in a version of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" that doesn't need animation to come off as a joyful cartoon short.
My one caveat is that Raabe's diction could have been clearer, particularly in the rapid-fire German patter songs, when the band sometimes drowned him out. Songs of this period tended to be text-driven, and for me a consistent problem with imitators of the Comedian Harmonists -- of which there have been many over the years -- is that they don't fully replicate the hair-trigger clarity of the original.
Well, my biggest problem was with Barry Manilow, who was so taken with the Comedian Harmonists that he wrote a whole musical about them, but rather missed the point: Instead of offering their music, he wrote all the songs for it himself. In this repertory, historically informed performance is definitely the way to go. And Raabe does the best job of it that I've heard yet.