Wanted: Kurt Weill Songs
How do you sing Kurt Weill? There is, I suspect, ultimately no one answer. As Dagmar Pecková points out in a booklet note for her album, the malleability of his output, straddling classical, jazz and popular music, has attracted performers as far apart as Brigitte Fassbaender and Robbie Williams. Interpretation is consequently a matter of placing his music in an immense spectrum that embraces the diseuse approach of Lotte Lenya, the more classical manner pioneered, with Lenya’s encouragement, by Teresa Stratas and the big-band swagger of Sinatra or, more recently, Michael Bublé. Pecková’s ‘Wanted’ and Kate Lindsey’s ‘Thousands of Miles’ take very different approaches.
Pecková anchors Weill in the cabaret tradition, while Lindsey, in a radical move, places him in the context of the European exile from Nazism by juxtaposing his work with music by Korngold, Alma Mahler and Zemlinsky, fellow émigrés to the United States. Using arrangements by conductor Jan Kučera, Pecková has an orchestra and jazz instrumentalists at her disposal, along with baritone Jiří Hájek, who joins her for a handful of duets and is given a couple of songs on his own. It all sounds very 1950s dance-band, and you can’t help thinking that Sinatra’s and Bobby Darin’s versions of ‘Mack the Knife’ have in places served as models. Lindsey’s sole accompanist is jazz pianist Baptiste Trotignon, who has arranged Weill’s songs himself, adding often dazzling improvisations to their basic melodic and rhythmic material.
Pecková, with her magnificent if frayed mezzo taking on a Lenya-ish touch of the gutter, proves a real drama queen. The passions of ‘Surabaya Johnny’ are extreme to the point of self-pity. ‘Youkali’ drips nostalgia, and Brecht’s political invectives hit home throughout. In her rare forays into English, however, she doesn’t sound ideally comfortable. ‘I’m a stranger here myself’ notably lacks the fire of the rest of it, and it is to Lindsey we must turn for the Broadway numbers, sung with wonderful understatement and great emotional perception. ‘Trouble Man’ and ‘Lonely House’ are high points on a disc where less frequently means so much more. We’re reminded on occasion of Stratas, though Lindsey’s stylistic range is wider, veering from classical grandeur in Alma Mahler’s extravagant ‘Hymne’ to the diseuse growl she adopts for ‘Denn wie man sich bettet, so liegt man.’
There are occasional drawbacks on both sides. Pecková’s histrionics can result in the adoption of slow speeds for the sake of verbal clarity, and ‘Seeräuber-Jenny’ turns stately, though the ferocity with which she delivers the final stanza is remarkable. Lindsey, thinking of Weill’s assimilation in America, offers the same song as ‘Pirate Jenny’ in Marc Blitzstein’s English version, but turns it into a medley with the ‘Barbara Song’, in which neither, annoyingly, is given complete. Both discs ultimately compel admiration, though. Choice between them is impossible: if you like Weill, you’ll probably like both.