Thursday 24 June 2021

Berlin im Licht: A Kurt Weill songbook from Ricardo Panela and Nuno Vieira de Almeida

Berlin im Licht - songs by Kurt Weill; Ricardo Panela, Nuno Vieira de Almeida; Artway Records

Berlin im Licht
- songs by Kurt Weill; Ricardo Panela, Nuno Vieira de Almeida; Artway Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 June 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The young Portuguese baritone reveals a deep connection to Weill's songs from Germany, France and the USA

The name of Portuguese baritone Ricardo Panela may well be familiar to UK audiences as his training included periods at the Guildhall School of Music and at Welsh International Academy of Voice, and he has made a number of notable UK appearances including at Opera Holland Park and at Longborough Festival Opera.

Under the title Berlin im Licht: A Kurt Weill Song Book, Ricardo Panela's new disc on Artway Records, with pianist Nuno Vieira de Almeida is a survey of Kurt Weill's songs, starting with a group written in Germany, then a group written in France and finally songs from Weill's Broadway career including the Four Walt Whitman Songs.

The songs thus not only cross two continents, setting three languages (German, French, English) but move through styles as well. Whilst Panela and Vieira de Almeida do not include any songs from Weill's stage collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, the four songs included her move through some of that territory. Yet there is also a sentimental element to them, they lack the really pointed bitter element of some of the Brecht/Weill collaborations, and if we look at the dates things become a lot less clear. Whilst the earliest song on the disc is Berlin im Licht, the two Brecht settings Nanna's Lied and Un was bekam des Soldaten weib? date respectively from 1939 (by which time Weill had already written Johnny Johnson and Knickerbocker Holiday for Broadway) and 1943 (the year of One Touch of Venus), well after Weill left Germany in 1933, whilst the Jean Cocteau setting, Es regnet, might be in German but dates from the Paris years. Neither his life nor his art fitted quite as neatly into periods as we might think.

Panela's approach is very much as an opera and lieder singer, quite sensibly he does not attempt to emulate a cabaret manner (whatever that might be) and it is worth bearing in mind that Weill wrote the wonderfully moving Nanna's Lied for his wife Lotte Lenya but Lenya never sang it in public. It was one of a group of songs that Lenya gave to soprano Teresa Stratas and which Stratas made familiar via her Unknown Kurt Weill disc. 

Ricardo Panela at the recording session for Berlin im Licht
Ricardo Panela at the recording session for Berlin im Licht
So for the first group we have Nanna's Lied, Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib, Berlin im Licht and Es regnet. The second of these, with its rather pointed lyrics is something of a surprise as whilst it is clearly Weill and would fit in one of the German theatre works, there is also a tenderness to it, something which continues through Panela's accounts of Berlin im Licht and Es regnet (to words by Jean Cocteau).

Next come the Four Walt Whitman Songs which Weill wrote in 1941-47 and the first three were premiered by a baritone from the Metropolitan Opera. This is real concert music, and Weill was clearly inspired by Whitman's texts. In the wrong hands, Whitman can seem rather wordy but here the results are vivid. Yet and yet, I have always found that these songs evoke very strongly the Broadway works Weill was writing at the time, they would fit in Street Scene (where Weill did indeed set some Whitman, 'When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd'). 

The standard version of these songs is in a high key as when the group of four was premiered in 1947 they were sung by a tenor. But three of them had been premiered earlier by a baritone, so here we have three sung by Panela and one, 'Come up from the Fields, Father' by Portuguese tenor Alberto Sousa (another name familiar to UK audiences). Panela sings with a fine, high lyric baritone and really sells the songs whilst never trying to hide their quasi-operatic leanings. He can manage a big climax but also hush mezza-voce so that the songs showcase some truly beautiful singing. His English is creditable and wonderfully understandable (there are no printed words) though sometimes, understandably, he sounds a bit careful. Sousa sings third song with a similar sense of style, and this one seems to leave Broadway rather further behind, hinting at what Weill might have done if he had not died so early.

After the Whitman we return to Europe for a group of songs which Weill wrote in France at a time when he was stateless, having fled Germany and not yet settled in America. This period would encompass time in Paris and in London, and music for stage works such as The Seven Deadly Sins (his last collaboration with Brecht) and Jacques Deval's play Marie Galante in Paris, and rather remarkably an English adaptation of Der Kuhhandel, as A Kingdom for a Cow, in London.

Here Panela gives us three French songs which make you think that Weill had been listening to a lot of diseues at Paris cafe concerts, Je ne t'aime pas, Complainte de la Seine, and Youkali. Panela turns in some beautifully sung, hushed intimate tones here, revelling in the change in style and imaginatively, Panela turns this latter into a duet as he is joined by Portuguese soprano Susana Gaspar. In a number of songs he shows himself highly comfortable with moving into speech, and makes the spoken passages as emotional as the sung ones.

Moving back to America, Buddy on the Nightshift showcases the intriguing combination of Kurt Weill and Oscar Hammerstein II, whilst September Song is so familiar we tend to forget its origins in Weill's musical Knickerbocker Holiday. Thousands of Miles comes from Weill's Lost in the Stars, a show which still has not quite found its place on the modern stage and we end with a moving account of the wonderful Speak Low from One Touch of Venus. A song that I was humming for days after listening to the disc.

Many of the songs on the disc are rarely sung by men, but there is no reason for instance why Nanna's Lied should not be about a male sex worker. As Panela explains in his booklet note, the themes of these songs trancend gender, race, age and sexual orientation. He also explains he own, very personal connections to the songs.

Whilst it might seem remarkably un-obvious to have a pair of Portuguese performers recording songs in English, French and German by an American-naturalised German-born Jew, the disc works,  thanks to Weill's ability to make connections through his music

Kurt Weill (1900-1950) - Nanna's Lied [1939]
Kurt Weill - Und was bekam des Soldaten Weib [1943]
Kurt Weill - Berlin im Licht [1928]
Kurt Weill - Es regnet [1933]
Kurt Weill - Four Walt Whitman Songs [1941-1947]
Kurt Weill - Je ne t'aime pas [1934]
Kurt Weill - Complainte de la Seine [1934]
Kurt Weill - Youkali [1935]
Kurt Weill - Buddy on the Nightshift [1942]
Kurt Weill - September Song [1938]
Kurt Weill - Thousands of Miles [1949]
Kurt Weill - Speak Low [1943]
Ricardo Panela (baritone)
Nuno Vieira de Almeida (piano)
Susana Gaspar (soprano)
Alberto Sousa (tenor)
Recorded at Atlantico Blue Studios, Portugal, 4-6 November 2020
ARTWAY RECORDS AWR 021 002 1CD [67:00]

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