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The NDR Big Band: The Theatre of Kurt Weill

Jack Bowers By

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Although perhaps best known in his native Germany, composer Kurt Weill wrote songs for the musical theatre that transcended boundaries, several of which (“Mack the Knife,” “Speak Low,” “My Ship”) are played often today in many styles and contexts, 100 years after Weill’s birth and half a century after his death, not only in Germany but around the world. The world–class NDR (North German Radio) Big Band pays homage to Weill in his centennial year with songs from half a dozen of his best–known plays, arranged and conducted by Colin Towns, one of the bright young lights on the British Jazz scene. Besides those mentioned above (from The Three–Penny Opera, One Touch of Venus and Lady in the Dark, respectively), they include “Alabama Song” from Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, “Surabaya Johnny” and “Bilbao Song” from Happy End, “Lost in the Stars” from the play of that name, and a reprise of Weill’s most admired composition, “Mack the Knife.” Much of the program is played seamlessly, almost as a medley, and those who’ve learned about “Mack the Knife” from Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr. or other American pop singers had best brace themselves for a wholly new experience. This isn’t the devil–may–care scalawag celebrated in their swinging panegyrics but a darker and far more sinister phantom whose more tangible visage is all but impossible to portray. The music reflects Weill’s somber vision of Germany in general and German theatre in particular during the late ’20s–early ’30s. He would entertain the masses, but with a purpose. Later, Weill fled his country for the relative freedom of the U.S. theatre, collaborating with lyricist Maxwell Anderson ( Knickerbocker Holiday, 1938), Ira Gershwin ( Lady in the Dark, 1941), Ogden Nash ( One Touch of Venus, 1943), Langston Hughes ( Street Scene, 1947), Alan Jay Lerner ( Love Life, 1948) and Anderson again ( Lost in the Stars, 1949). Weill’s music was set to lyrics by Marc Blitzstein in a 1954 revival of The Three–Penny Opera. whose cast included the ever–present Lotte Lenya as well as Scott Merrill, Charlotte Rae, Bea Arthur and John Astin. It is interesting to note the inclusion in that production of “The Ballad of Mack the Knife,” as that is precisely how Towns and the NDR Big Band approach the song. It is a ballad, and darkly sketched. Aside from “Mack,” Weill’s most enduring compositions, at least in this country, are, as noted earlier, “Speak Low” and “My Ship,” and it’s not hard to understand why. Among his many songs they are the most melodically charming, and are far and away the most effective numbers on this retrospective, with strong solos on each (I’m guessing, but that may be Julian Argüelles’ baritone on “Speak Low,” Fiete Felsch or Peter Bolte’s alto on “My Ship”). No, I can’t say why another of Weill’s marvelous compositions, “September Song” (from Knickerbocker Holiday ) was overlooked. With more than 20 minutes of the disc unfilled, it could easily have been included. But what’s here is vintage Weill, albeit atypically deciphered for American ears.

Track listing: Mack the Knife; Dance of the Tumblers; Alabama Song; Speak Low; Surabaya Johnny; Bilbao Song; Lost in the Stars; My Ship; Mack the Knife (54:27).

Personnel:

Colin Towns, director; Lennart Axelsson, Ingolf Burkhardt, Claus St

| Record Label: ACT Music | Style: Big Band


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