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CD Review

Kurt Weill

Shady Dealing

  • Der Kuhhandel (excerpts)
Soloists, Cologne Radio Choir, Cologne Radio Orchestra/Jan Latham-König
Capriccio 60013-1
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Not quite what the composer's fans have been waiting for.

Hitler's accession to the Chancellorship of Germany triggered one of history's largest exoduses of brains and talent, from which both Germany and Austria have only begun to recover. Kurt Weill and Bert Brecht were two among many who decided to get out while the getting was good. Weill went first to Paris, where he and Brecht collaborated on their powerful ballet-cantata Die sieben Todsünden (the seven deadly sins). After a bit of knocking about, Weill next went to London, where a West End theater producer wanted a Kurt Weill "show." After the heady cultural mix of the Weimar Republic, Weill found himself for the first time in a truly commercial environment. He asked Hungarian-born Robert Vambery, formerly the literary director of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm and now, like Weill, on the run from the Nazis, for a libretto. It seemed a wise choice for Weill. Among other things, Vambery had translated Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance into German for a successful run, and therefore Weill had confidence in his librettist's ability to gauge British taste. Unfortunately for the two of them, British popular entertainment had changed since Gilbert's day, not necessarily for the better. Weill was told to cut altogether or to replace some of the more complex musical numbers with simpler ones - both musically and lyrically (he complied; new, more conventional lyrics were supplied by Englishman Desmond Carter). The story changed from a political-ethical one (wherein lay Weill's chief artistic interests) concerning a U.S. business propping up a South American dictatorship to a variant on Zorro - in short, a story of star-crossed lovers. Der Kuhhandel ("that business with the cow," or, more idiomatically, "horse trading" or "shady dealing") became A Kingdom for a Cow, which closed as a success d'estime after a few performances in 1934. From then to 1990, the original work I don't believe had been heard.

Historically at least, it's an important score. It represents the first step of Weill's journey toward Lady in the Dark - the transformation from major modernist to Broadway tunesmith and, slightly later, to one of the great innovators of the American lyric theater. Weill resurrector David Drew's essay, "Der Kuhhandel as a Key Work" (from a New Orpheus: Essays on Kurt Weill, Kim Kowalke, ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-300-04616-2) argues the influence of Offenbach via the libretto translations and revisions by satirist Karl Kraus and a view of the work as "Weill's first attempt to write 'light music' as the man in the street understood it." Drew also points out, however, the music's considerable structural sophistication, even amid Weill's deliberate simplifications of style. It's also the first and one of the most pointed of his commentaries on the Nazis. As Drew points out, "Der Kuhhandel… could only have been written after March 1933. Its reflections on the subjects of dictatorship and war belong to the European era that began with the Nazi seizure of power." In short, Vambery had provided Weill with a remarkably multi-layered libretto, and Weill responded not with his "usual" manner, but with an ardent attempt to renew his theater music through broader appeal without losing his artistic soul. That became the problem he wrestled with for the rest of his short life. In works like Johnny Johnson, Street Scene, and Lost in the Stars, I believe he won out. Kingdom for a Cow shredded, smoothed, and trivialized a complex original Kuhhandel in the mill of commercial pressure. Weill had to "learn the ropes" before he could break free of them.

I should point out that this performance is not the complete score as Weill and Vambery originally conceived it. Some of the most interesting numbers are left out, including "The Ballad of Pharaoh" and a "Disarmament Fugue." The CD leaves me wanting more. Vambery had supplied a very Gilbertian libretto but with considerable political sting, and Weill responded with music that reminds me very much of the Offenbach "topical" operettas, filtered of course through Weill's fascination with cabaret music and his flirtation in this score with "Latin" rhythms. Where Gilbert is indulgent toward the foolishness and arrogance of government, Vambery is mostly scathing, though still funny. One can well imagine, however, that British West End audiences didn't really want to hear something so upsetting in an "entertainment" and in any case wouldn't have gotten the many in-jokes on Nazi rhetoric. Weill's music, while simpler than, say, The Seven Deadly Sins, still makes use of extended arias and scena, rather than the 32-bar song. One of the hero's arias, however, starts almost note for note identical to the later "September Song" from Weill's Knickerbocker Holiday. To me, this shows that even on Broadway, Weill never settled for the commercially tried and true. It just happened to fail in 1934 London and click in 1938 New York. It's not really fair to judge Weill's Kuhhandel on the basis of this CD, since the most powerful parts of the score have gone unrecorded. The excerpts given are fine in themselves, but not sufficient. We need a complete recording of this, as well as of the major scores of Die Burgschaft and Weg der Verheissung.

The performance is capable, but not more than that. Oskar Hildebrandt as the villainous General tends to shout, rather than sing, under the mistaken impression that he's acting. You often can't tell what notes he's supposed to hit, but he represents the bad exception. The rest of the cast is decent, if not wonderful, although Udo Holdorf's oily Goebbels-like character is genuinely funny. Latham-König gives a nice bounce to Weill's dance-band rhythms and also reveals the Romantic idealism at the heart of Weill's musical irony.

Recorded sound is a shade too bright, even harsh, but since this is the only recording of a seminal Weill score, genuine fans like me will have to bear it.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz