Kurt Weill's first opera (now lost) was reportedly based on "an old German play about knights and their ladies" and was composed in 1910-11 -- not bad for a composer who was born in 1900. It probably sounded a lot like Richard Wagner, whose music was the operatic staple in the German town of Dessau, where Weill was born, the son of a Jewish cantor.
His last opera was named "Huckleberry Finn," destined for Broadway, written in collaboration with playwright Maxwell Anderson and never finished, although Weill did compose five songs for it before his death in 1950.
In his half-century of life, Weill produced a greater variety of music than any other composer of the 20th century, from the solidly classical operas, cantatas, symphonies, string quartets and Violin Concerto that marked him as one of Ferruccio Busoni's most distinguished disciples, through "The Threepenny Opera" and "Mahagonny" -- pivotal works in the history of 20th-century musical theater -- to such pace-setting Broadway works as "Lady in the Dark," "One Touch of Venus" "Street Scene" and "Lost in the Stars."
The recording industry still has not done justice to Weill's prolific and diverse output 40 years after his death, but a significant contribution has been made in honor of his 90th anniversary by a German label, Capriccio. Specially interesting among several Capriccio discs are two items from the late 1920s: "Der Zar lasst sich photographieren" ("The Czar Has His Picture Taken"; Capriccio 60 007-1, with libretto), a one-act comic opera with text by Georg Kaiser, and "Der Lindbergflug" ("Lindbergh's Flight"), a 1929 radio cantata with text by Bertolt Brecht.
"The Czar Has His Picture Taken" was composed in 1927, just before Weill began collaborating with Brecht but after he had begun to explore pop styles and dramatic irony. It is about an assassination plot, involving a photographer's studio with a gun hidden in a camera and some comic byplay when the czar (generic, not historic) tries to take the photographer's picture first. It is funny and musically excellent, written mostly in an eloquent late romantic idiom but with a tango segment that foreshadows Weill's later work. This piece should be heard by anyone interested in the full spectrum of Weill's talent. The performance, recorded for Cologne Radio with Barry McDaniel as the czar and Jan Latham-Koenig conducting, is excellent.
German radio is also the source for the recording of the Lindbergh cantata -- or, rather, recordings. There are two versions of "Der Lindbergflug," the first written in collaboration with Paul Hindemith, the second (more than twice as long) composed by Weill alone. Weill's style in this music is eclectic, often declamatory, lucid and (when appropriate) emotionally powerful, sometimes resembling the style of the "Threepenny Opera" finale. Besides an excellent performance of the final version, this disc includes a historic broadcast of the Weill-Hindemith original, conducted by Hermann Scherchen, dating from 1930 and interesting for the contrasts between Weill's and Hindemith's styles. Also on the disc is "The Ballad of Magna Carta," a dramatic bit of radio propaganda in Weill's best popular style with text by Maxwell Anderson, composed and broadcast in 1940 and pointedly asserting that "Resistance unto tyrants is obedience to God." The Cologne Radio performance captures exactly the style of this dramatic cantata, with notable work by Noel Tyl as a splendidly villainous King John.
The cornerstone of Weill's work remains "The Threepenny Opera," and three variously interesting recordings have appeared recently. The "Mack the Knife" soundtrack (CBS MK 45630) has some fine performances (notably by Julia Migenes as Jenny, Richard Harris as Peachum and Julie Walters as his wife), and Roger Daltrey's participation will probably sell quite a few copies, but this disc represents Hollywood's fatal inability to leave well enough alone. New arrangements take the bite out of Weill's lean, mean orchestration; Marc Blitzstein's translation has been revised (or replaced in some numbers) with mixed results, and Lucy's jealousy aria, one of the best numbers in the score, has been omitted. CBS (now owned by Sony) has, of course, the "Threepenny" recording that many devotees find definitive, made under the supervision of Lotte Lenya, Weill's widow, in the 1950s.
A fine, operatically oriented performance, in German with an international cast, has been recorded for Bulgarian radio and television and distributed by Koch International Classics (3-7006-2). This is strongest where the movie soundtrack is weakest or nonexistent, in the quality of such voices as Waldemar Kmentt and Manfred Jung, and particularly in Lucy's aria, sung and acted by a soprano named Natalia Aleyan in the best performance I have ever heard. Dramatically, some other versions occasionally have a sharper cutting edge, but musically this is excellent.
On London 430 075-2, John Mauceri is the music director and his conducting quite simply sets new musical standards for recordings of this work. Stylistically, it takes a middle course between the pop orientation of "Mack the Knife" and the operatic style of the Bulgarian recording, with Ute Lemper in the role of Polly sharing the honors with such eminent operatic singers as Rene Kollo (Macheath) and Helga Dernesch (Mrs. Peachum). This production solves the question of whether the "Pirate song" should be sung by Polly (as Weill originally intended) or Jenny (as Lenya later decreed) by having Polly sing it in Act 1 and Jenny (a fine cabaret singer named Milva) in Act 2. All three of these versions have their attractions, and I would not want to be without any of them, but Mauceri's is the one I will replay most often.
Dog Day Music
Those who are looking for some hot-weather music that hasn't been played to death might try Marco Polo Records' "J. Strauss Jr. Edition," which is well on its way to recording the composer's complete orchestral output. It is surprising, considering his popularity, that more than half of the "Waltz King's" music has never before been recorded, but it becomes somewhat less surprising when you consider that he composed more than 500 orchestral pieces. I have been listening lately to Volumes 7, 8 and 9 in this series, delighted at the wealth of unknown and excellent waltzes, quadrilles, galops and polkas, plus an occasional top-40 item such as the "Emperor" Waltz. The performances are as bright as the music and the digital sound.
Another familiar composer with lots of unfamiliar music, Percy Grainger, is also getting the "complete" treatment. The first volume of his complete piano music, beautifully played by Martin Jones (Nimbus NI 5220), includes some juvenilia among its 18 selections as well as the popular "Handel in the Strand," "Mock Morris" and the brilliantly jazzy "In Dahomey," which would surely be better known if it were not so hard to play.
The Brahms Hungarian Dances are anything but unfamiliar, but one seldom hears them played with the verve mustered (on Denon 81757 4597 2) by Otmar Suitner and the Staatskapelle Berlin. Bright orchestration and lusty peasant dance rhythms make this good hot weather music as long as you don't get up and dance.