Kurt Weill on Broadway: Songs and Orchestrations by Kurt Weill

This is apparent in the songs that are already familiar to audiences around the
world, and it is also borne out in the less familiar pieces collected in this
recording. Beyond familiar songs that have been performed by various singers
for over half a century, the duets and other ensembles that he wrote for the
American stage are equally accessible. Originally recorded in 1994, this CD
entitled Kurt Weill on Broadway is a compilation of some strong
pieces by Weill that are have not achieved the popularity associated with
some of his other music.

This recording includes a selection of pieces from One Touch of Venus,
Knickerbocker Holiday, The Firebrand of Florence
(prior to the complete
recording that was subsequently made), Love Life and Johnny
. In choosing music for this recording, the fine Weill
interpreter John McGlinn avoided some of the obvious pieces like the
“September Song” to call attention instead to other fine songs
from Knickerbocker Holiday, “It Was Never You” and
“How Can You Tell an American?” Despite its title, “It Was
Never You” is one particular back-handed lovesongs that merits
attention for the careful blending of lyrics and music that transcend the
play for which it was intended. Sung by Thomas Hampson and Elizabeth Futral
in the roles of Brom and Tina, this is song that some have attempted as a
solo piece, which does not work as well as in the intended in the musical.
The second selection from Knickerbocker Holiday is kind of character
piece, “How Can You Tell an American?” here performed
articulately by Hampson and Jerry Hadley without tipping their hands on the
affinities that this song has with the pre-World War II sentiment and the
patrimony of the piece with the kind of list-songs archetypically part of
Gilbert and Sullivan’s idiom.

Yet it is in the extensive selection from The Firebrand of
that this recording makes its mark. A work that as known in its
day, it was eclipsed by other pieces for the Broadway stage that followed it.
Yet the music selected here suggests that The Firebrand of Florence
deserves further attention. Closer, perhaps, to the more formally rich
tradition of operetta than the Broadway musical of Weill’s day, this
work is a comic adaptation of the same story that Berlioz fashioned into his
opera Benvenuto Cellini. Bowing to the conventions of the Broadway
stage rather than the operatic tradition, Weill creates some vivid pieces
that bring the sensational biography of the famous artist to life. The
ensembles and ensuing counterpoint anticipates in some ways the style that
Bernstein would use in his own quintessential operetta Candide.
While the score of Weill’s work has its demands, the rewards are
worthwhile, with vocal textures and soaring melodies that transcend some of
the works of his contemporaries. While the music remains strong, so too do
the lyrics echo strongly in various pieces that convey the story of Cellini
and the character of Florence, the setting for the work. The sometimes forced
rhymes that contribute to the humor of the score are performed squarely, as
they should be, and the result is convincing. Like some recent recordings of
works like Kiss Me Kate, the use of trained singers for this work
help to bring out the merits of Weill’s score.

As to the other excerpts, like the evocative “Westwind” with
which the collection opens, the performance of a singer of the caliber of
Thomas Hampson conveys the nuances of a solo number that is atypical of
Broadway convention, yet imbued with the lyricism and substance that allows
Weill’s music to endure. The sustained lines and the choral interjections
effectively capture the sense of yearning implicit in the text of this piece
from One Touch of Venus. As familiar as this number be to some
audiences, Hampson’s interpretation stands well with others who have recorded
this song.

In addition, Elizabeth Futral’s performances are equally solid and
engaging. Her duet with Hampson in “It Never Was You” is
representative of her efforts, and the various excerpts from The
Firebrand of Florence
in which she sings the role of Angela are
noteworthy for the tone she achieves. Never arch or self-consciously
operatic, Futral brings a clear and ringing tone that carries the
English-language text well, and this particularly evident in the excerpts
from Love Life. Moreover, Hampson’s continuing efforts in
promoting American song will find a complement in these pieces Weill
contributed to the American theater that reflect both the native genre and
also the composer’s own genius in grafting his style to it.

Beyond the presentation of some of the less familiar theater songs of
Weill, the subtitle of the recording calls attention to an important aspect
of the composer’s craft. Unlike other Broadway composers of his time,
Weill pursued his own orchestrations, rather than consign the scoring to
individuals who assisted composers of musicals in scoring their music for the
pit orchestra. Weill’s hand in the orchestrations lends an authenticity
to the music that puts an emphasis on the tone colors used. Thus, the
ephemeral sounds of “Westwind” suggest some tone painting in that
piece, just as the sometimes homespun sonorities of “Who Is Samuel
Cooper?” from Love Life hint at the element of Americana
essential to the setting of that musical. Weill’s sense of the appropriate
orchestral effect emerges clearly in these performances, that benefit from
the masterful hand of McGlinn leading the London Sinfonietta.

McGlinn’s notes to the recording call attention to the American Kurt
Weill, a distinction that can be, at times, artificial, but certainly
confirms the composer’s ability to have assimilated the culture of the
United States. While some other composers who fled to the United States may
have failed to merge their styles with those of their adopted land, Weill’s
efforts demonstrate his own success in adapting his efforts to the very
American form of musical theater. Those who have not yet encountered this
recording will find that it has much to offer in the fine selection from
Weill’s works for the American stage.

James Zychowicz

image_description=Kurt Weill on Broadway: Songs and Orchestrations by Kurt Weill
product_title=Kurt Weill on Broadway: Songs and Orchestrations by Kurt Weill
product_by=Thomas Hampson, Elizabeth Futral, Jerry Hadley, Jeanne Lehman, London Sinfonietta
Chorus, London Sinfonieta, John McGlinn, conductor.
product_id=EMI Classics 3-58245-2 [CD]