Kurt Weill (1900-1950)

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

The Philharmoniker’s Golden Twenties “online festival” looks back to the Weimar Republic and a decade when, to quote their sales pitch, “abject poverty, bold dreams of modernity, pleasure-seeking, and nostalgia and violence” collided. When Americana invaded. When jazz, guitars, banjos and saxophones, brass sections and vamping pianos, freewill and freefall shaped the sound, sex and speculation of the place. In the 1920s Berlin was the world’s third biggest city after London and New York, with a population peaking at over four million. Isherwood and W. H. Auden made it towards the end. Hitler’s far-right NSDAP was a splinter group.

As a study in scene setting, this third concert of the series, contextualising Weill’s Russian and Finnish contemporaries in the mix, was compelling for Oliver Hilmes’s documentary, Berlin im Leicht – Stories from the Golden Twenties, narrated by Dagmar Manzel, for many the voice of Berlin: she grew up in the Eastern sector of the city and for many years was resident at the Deutsches Theater. Mistress of nuance, delivering a masterclass in timing and inflexion, releasing all the sensuality of the German language, in her eyes the gaze and understanding of one who has experienced much, she alchemised statistics into pearls of enlightenment. Three opera houses, over forty theatres, twenty concert halls, eight with more than a thousand capacity each. Conductors at the old Philharmonie in Bernburger Strasse, destroyed by British bombing in 1944. Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber, Hermann Scherchen, Jascha Horenstein, Leo Blech, Fritz Stiedry. Berg’s Wozzeck at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Léhar’s Land of Smiles at the Metropol. Klemperer “causing a sensation” at the Kroll-Oper. A thousand publishing houses. 147 daily newspapers (out of 3,356 throughout Germany). Four-hundred cinemas (the German film industry was largely based in Berlin), seating 150,000. Five-hundred art galleries exhibiting work by new and international artists. Mind-boggling figures.

Through stills and moving images, a locale a century ago emerged. Its underbelly, too – the hardship, the courtyard slums, the barrow boys, the horse-and-carts, the long-forgotten long-dead flotsam of an era. Some facets, though, were left to speak for themselves, either through subtle subtext or no mention at all. That, for instance, many war-widows of 1914-18, like their sisters around Europe and the Balkans, resorted to prostitution for survival. How many walked “the obscure streets and dark corners of the Grossstadt” is impossible to guess. Astronomical numbers have been supposed. Before the First World War, Hans Ostwald noted that “most dance halls are nothing but markets for prostitution”. In the twenties Berlin’s restaurants and clubs, around a thousand of them, ranged from serving the culinary fineries of life to the downright inedible. All however, at various levels of the social chain, shared a common “house of horrors” interest in sex and drugs. Addiction, humanity for sale, murder in the gutter, was as much a part of Berlin nightlife as Beethoven’s brotherhood of men in the Philharmonie.*

Making his Philharmoniker debut, Thomas Søndergård, standing in for Donald Runnicles, must have been well-pleased with this concert. He brought to all three works on the programme a distinctive stylistic identity and tension, his clarity of beat and gesture, his refusal to entertain gratuitous theatre, ensuring cohesion and vibrancy, the orchestra right behind him. The Suite from Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges (Opus 33bis, premiered in Paris in 1925) made one wonder why it features so little these days. The six movements work succinctly, the fifth, ‘The Prince and the Princess’ – luxuriantly tinted by Søndergård – about as defiantly non “Russian jazz with Bolshevik trimmings” as can be imagined. Fairyland storytelling.

The lyrical enigmatic horizons of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony (1923) – which the Philharmoniker first played under Karajan towards the end of 1938 – has to an extent mitigated against its wider assimilation in the concert room. Søndergård penetrated its essence, bringing an authentically Beethovenian thrust to the cellular development passages, in the process placing events naturally and organically within the composer’s creative chronology. He terraced the orchestral writing with beauty, from rarefied chamber solos to tutti climaxes, homogenised lines to contrastingly segmented blocks. Quizzically gauging the endings of the first, second and ‘die-away’ fourth movements, a semicolon more than full-stop in play, left a sense of unresolve in the air, yet convinced. “I do not think of a symphony only as music in this or that number of bars, but rather as an expression of a spiritual creed, a phase in one’s inner life”, Sibelius maintained. That seemed the message Søndergård wanted to stress – phases in his own journey too maybe; who knows. 

One of Furtwängler’s preferred circle, Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg was Knappertsbusch’s assistant in Munich and Karajan’s successor at Ulm. His seven-movement 1968 Suite from Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1928-29) rightly stunned. Notably the attack and relentlessness of the formidable Largo close. And for exceptional alto and tenor sax playing earlier. Given that you’ll never translate the likes of Lotte Lenya – vocalists have an easier time personalising the temper and timbre, the linguistic curve, of such music – the global artistry and pliant moulding of the instrumental solos, together with Søndergård’s responsive management, the odd flick of a wrist to emphasise a point, ensured that this was an orchestral imaginarium I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

*Peter Fritzsche, “Vagabond in the Fugitive City: Hans Ostwald, Imperial Berlin and the Grossstadt-Dokumente”, Journal of Contemporary History, July 1994, and Falen Wilkes, “Constructions of Prostitution in Berlin, 1914-45: Lessons in Understanding Sex Work, Legalization, and Decriminalization”, Seattle University thesis, June 2020, elaborate the narrative.


Original programme

Berliner Philharmoniker
Donald Runnicles conductor
Irene Roberts soprano
Eugen d’Albert Tiefland: Symphonic Prelude, op. 34
Franz Schreker Der Schatzgräber: Symphonic Interlude
Alban Berg Three Fragments from Wozzeck (reduced version)
Kurt Weill The Rise and fall of the City of Mahagonny: Suite (arr. Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg]