Thursday 11 April 2019

In search of Youkali: the life & songs of Kurt Weill at Pizza Express Live

Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya and Bertolt Brecht in 1930 (© Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz)
Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya and Bertolt Brecht in 1930
© Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz
The Art Song Series at Pizza Express' The Pheasantry in the King's Road continues apace under the artistic directorship of pianist William Vann. Providing a welcome opportunity to hear classical song in a more casual setting (and eat pizza too). Last night's concert In search of Youkali: the life and songs of Kurt Weill (10 April 2019) featured Katie Bray (mezzo-soprano), Phil Cornwell (double bass) and William Vann (piano) in an exploration of Kurt Weill's music ranging from his songs with Bertolt Brecht, through other occasional songs to his American musical period including his final song. A loose theme running through the programme was the song Youkali which is about the search for a lost paradise, and fragments of the song were used to link Weill's songs, with the song itself being heard at the end. A haunting end to a striking evening.

Weill's songs are remarkably memorable and remarkably robust, so that they are performed in a variety of different styles and ways. Weill himself was conventionally classically trained under Ferrucio Busoni, but collaboration with the playwright Brecht as well as love for the great singing actress Lotte Lenya led Weill to move in the direction of music theatre, a progress which continued when he moved to America in the 1930s. The challenge is exemplified by the opening song of the recital, Nannas Lied which Weill wrote for Lotte Lenya but which she claims never to have sung. Do you sing it straight, turn it into a cabaret number or go the full sprech-stimme?

Here, I have to confess that I prefer my Kurt Weill relatively straight, with the melodies sung. This is a risk, operatically trained voices can sometimes overpower material designed for actors and the text (always important in Weill's music) can disappear. Thankfully, from the very outset Katie Bray showed herself equal to all the challenges.

Singing from memory, and coping superbly with the need to communicate with an audience facing multiple directions, she was vibrant and vivid from the opening notes. Each song had its own style, but at the core was Bray's strongly characterful voice and musical intelligence, so that we were really drawn in. Words were to the fore, whether in English or German and you never felt you needed to glance down at the translations (though the highly dramatic lighting made this difficult).  The German words of the 'Barbara Song' from Die Dreigroschen Oper were brilliantly spat out, with Bray almost making them a weapon. And whilst the English version of Surabaya Johnny raised a laugh in the first verse 'take that cigarette out of your mouth, you rat', no-one laughed in the second verse and by the end everyone was rapt by the intensity with which Bray articulated the woman's pain.

There was an element of staging in that Bray moved around, sometimes appearing from the audience so that the sense of dramatic movement in the evening was significant.

She was finely partnered by Vann and Cornwell, all three moved easily between the various styles of Weill's career from the German music theatre, to the French cabaret songs to the American musical. The show demonstrated Weill's mastery of re-invention, and the performers showed themselves equal to the same challenge. Cornwell's bass added depth to the darker moments, and helped move the sound-world towards jazz in the American songs. For 'My Ship' from Lady in the Dark, Cornwell moved to the piano and created a far more jazz-inspired feel to the song, complemented by a trumpet solo from Vann (no, I didn't know he played the trumpet either!) The find of the evening must be the pair of songs from Hucklberry Finn, which were Weill's last works (he completed five songs from a proposed musical).

Everyone has their own personal selection of Weill songs, but here we had an intriguing mix of the known and the lesser known. The performances were of such strength and vibrancy that there were no worries about style, the performers gave us their Kurt Weill and vividly engaging it was too.

The programme was completed with a selection of songs by composers who went on similar journeys to Weill, so we heard Schoenberg's Tot, a trio of powerful pieces by Hanns Eisler (whose collaboration with Brecht continued what was started with Weill), and Tonight or never by Mischa Spoliansky, another composer who moved from German music theatre, to musical.

The series continues with A voyage into American song with soprano April Fredrick (8 May 2019), Songs of Home with South African baritone Njabulo Madlala (11 June 2019),  and Wolf's Italiensiches Liederbuch with Johnny Herford and Sarah-Jane Brandon (6 July 2019)

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