John Adams, Symphonies No 1 & 2

Steve Holtje

By Steve Holtje

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Most people know Kurt Weill (1900-1950) only from his stage works. His few concert works were derided by critics, which caused him to give up writing any after 1934. But ignore them and you're missing some great music, especially since the Bournemouth Symphony plays with such rich tone and rhythmic acuity under Marin Alsop's leadership. There is no better available recording pairing Weill's symphonies.

Dense, haunting, unmistakable: indespensible Weill

Recordings of Weill's Symphonies are uncommon and don't seem to stay in print very long; this new album should be a welcome exception. The First Symphony (1921), a one-movement work in three sections, is the more rarely heard (only six recordings before this one). Its dense opening immediately sets it apart from Weill's more familiar style; attempts to link it to previous composers 'styles (Stravinsky, Mahler and pre-serial Schoenberg) only fit in brief, passing moments. It's expressionist, certainly, and modernist; thorny, tonally hard to pin down and dissonant — and yet, some harmonies already sound typically Weill-ish, and the haunting lyricism of which he was capable is already in evidence. It's a highly original work that makes one regret that his theater work became so in-demand that he didn't have time to further refine this style. Alsop's performance is largely persuasive of the work's worth, though the last third might be even better if taken less deliberately.

The Second Symphony (1933-34) is slightly more familiar (this is the eleventh recording), but still not heard nearly often enough considering it's an outright masterpiece. No less a figure than Bruno Walter enthusiastically premiered it in Amsterdam in 1934, and brought it to Vienna and New York within a year. Though more abstract than his stage works, it's easy to interpret in light of the composer's recent flight from the Nazis, though Weill denied any programme whatsoever. The overall style is similar to the contemporaneous Seven Deadly Sins: orchestrated in bold swathes of instrumental color, with the winds typically prominent; sometimes ironic in tone (in spots, he might be mocking the Nazis 'militarism), rhythmically and to a degree harmonically reflecting the influence of jazz-tinged popular music (to a much lesser degree than in The Threepenny Opera, of course, but much more than most of his contemporaries). Structurally it's a motivically tight-knit three-movement work that's more traditional than the First but still quite inventive and distinctive. Alsop takes it relatively slowly, although most of the difference comes in the Largo middle movement, where she finds great pathos and angst (it almost sounds like Shostakovich). If some of the irony is sacrificed, that's a valid interpretational decision.

The Symphonic Nocturne is a concert suite Robert Russell Bennett arranged (premiered in 1949) from the 1940 Weill/Moss Hart/Ira Gershwin Broadway musical Lady in the Dark. It alternates wistfulness (including "My Ship") and jauntiness so quickly that at times one fears sonic whiplash. Bennett's orchestration sounds nothing like Weill's, but exactly like contemporary Broadway practice. This is the only recording.