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CLASSICAL  October 2008

CLASSICAL October 2008

Subject:

Kaddish for the Twentieth Century

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 3 Oct 2008 17:04:38 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (125 lines)

Kaddish

*  Kurt Weill: Das Berliner Requiem (1928)
*  Arnold Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw, op. 46 (1947)
*  Leonard Bernstein: Symphony No. 3 "Kaddish" (1963, rev. 1977)

Samuel Piser (speaker, Bernstein)
Noam Sheriff (speaker, Schoenberg)
Abbie Furmansky (soprano)
Jan Remmers (tenor)
Christian Immler (baritone)
Berlin Radio Choir, Boys of the State and Cathedral Choir of Berlin, Lucerne
Symphony Orchestra/John Axelrod
Nimbus NI 5807  Total time: 85:15

Summary for the Busy Executive: An interesting idea inconsistently carried
out.

The CD has a theme: three Jewish composers' very different artistic
responses to the horrors of the twentieth century.  Weill's Berliner
Requiem addresses World War I and its aftermath, Schoenberg's Survivor
from Warsaw a piece of the Holocaust, and Bernstein's Third the problem
of belief after such things have occurred.

The good news on this disc is that for the very first time, the complete
Weill Berliner Requiem is now available on CD, and in a good performance,
to boot.  The work premiered on German radio in 1929, but not until
censors had eliminated at least one section.  Brecht provided the texts
-- I think some of his most powerful lyrics, apparently too powerful for
the public airwaves even in the Weimar Republic -- which sing of the
death of Rosa Luxemburg, the Unknown Soldier ("dead beneath the dead
stone of the Arc de Triomphe"), and the returning soldiers and even
civilians physically and psychologically damaged by the Great War.  Weill
created a masterpiece, eschewing the spectacle and theatrics of traditional
requiems for something both intimate and resolutely secular.  The opening
sound -- male trio and guitar intoning what sounds like a bar-room melody
-- hangs heavy over the entire work.

David Drew, through his writings and editions the man most responsible
for the resurrection of Kurt Weill's reputation (as Lotte Lenya and
Gisela May kept Weill's European work before the public), prepared a
performing edition of the radio premiere in 1967, and, to his shock,
this became the canonical score.  In 2006, he finally produced what he
now considers definitive.  This restores Weill's original forces as well
as the missing numbers to the work, and all by itself justifies the price
of the disc.

A Survivor from Warsaw, to a text by Schoenberg himself, comes from just
after World War II and tells, in eight minutes, of Polish Jews rounded
up by the Nazis for the gas chambers.  Over an increasingly grotesque
accompaniment, a speaker begins the story.  However, as the Jewish
prisoners count off at the order of the sergeant in charge, a male chorus
enters like a bolt of lightning.  The Jews break into the traditional
prayers Sh'ma Yisrael and V'ohafta, affirming the commandment to love
God, even amidst the horror.  Schoenberg certainly doesn't minimize the
horror, even during the prayers, but the sudden entrance of the male
chorus at that point drives through the score like a spike.  Schoenberg
had lost family, including his brother Heinrich, to the Nazis.  He doesn't
accept easy formulas of consolation.

Bernstein's Third Symphony, subtitled "Kaddish" after the Jewish prayer
for the dead, has frustrated me ever since I first heard it, shortly
after its 1964 premiere.  Conceived in part as a vehicle for Bernstein's
wife, Felicia Montealegre, it calls for speaker, soprano soloist, choir,
boys' choir, as well as huge symphony orchestra.  Bernstein wrote the
text, a long poem about the modern loss of faith, a concern he had raised
before and would raise again.  He intersperses his meditations on the
soul of man with settings of the Kaddish, a prayer celebrating the glory
of God and liturgically used as a prayer for the dead.  Unfortunately,
although Bernstein could write witty light verse, his attempts at serious
poetry bled purpler than Barney the Dinosaur.  The text he came up with
one could charitably describe as god-awfully hammy.  Montealegre's plummy
delivery didn't help.  The music, however, stands among the most magnificent
Bernstein ever wrote, and it kills me that the speaker's text stinks it
up.  Bernstein himself recognized the problem and revised the speaker's
part for his 1977 DG recording.  He took out some of the most blush-making
junk, but even that failed to redeem the poem.  Critics have called the
symphony kitsch, which with its text is exactly what it is.  But the
music alone is not, which has left me wondering whether one could perform
the symphony sans speaker.

Skip ahead to Samuel Pisar, international lawyer, Bernstein friend, and
Holocaust survivor.  He furnished a new text for a 2003 performance of
the symphony.  I didn't think it possible, but his poem sucks just as
bad as -- if not worse than -- Bernstein's.  Furthermore, it completely
changes the symphony's program by tying it to Pisar's role as witness
and survivor to the Holocaust.  I emphasize that I don't question Pisar's
heart or the importance of his message, merely the aesthetic worth of
his words.  Furthermore, it makes little difference to the music, which
works just as well as with Bernstein's poem.  Perhaps one could judiciously
select real poems -- Psalms and other Biblical passages, for example --
and this would work best of all.

In my experience, the Holocaust constitutes a horror of an inconceivable
magnitude, and most words -- especially those that try to come to some
sort of resolution, consolation, or peroration -- only diminish it and
the suffering that continues to flow from it, more than sixty years
later.  To misquote Adorno, "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."

However, Adorno also wrote, "Perennial suffering has as much right to
expression as the tortured have to scream...  hence it may have been
wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz." I find the
recital of facts and experiences far more powerful than most poems.  The
poems -- by Celan and Sachs, among others -- that keep mainly to description
rather than to pontification succeed the best.  Indeed, the genuinely
affecting parts of Pisar's text confine themselves to actual memories.
The rest is wind.

As I say, the Weill alone recommends the disc.  However, the performances
-- good enough -- pale in comparison to previous recordings: David
Atherton and the London Sinfonietta for the Weill, Abbado and the Vienna
Philharmonic for the Schoenberg, and Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic,
all on DG.  The Atherton in particular (available on a DG "double" of
Weill's music) remains, incomplete though it may be, one of my favorite
recordings of anything after thirty years and includes the Mahagonny
Songspiel, the violin concerto (with Nona Liddell), Kleine Dreigroschenmusik,
and selections from Happy End, among others.

Steve Schwartz

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