Summary for the Busy Executive: A long wait for half a loaf.
Kurt Weill's Weg der Verheissung ("Way of the Covenant"; English title, The Eternal Road) has attained a kind of mythic status among the composer's fans. Until quite recently, none of the music had been heard since the original production of 1935. Max Reinhardt, Franz Werfel, and Weill – all refugees from the Third Reich – as well as avant-garde set designer Norman Bel Geddes – had been approached by American Zionist impressario Meyer Weisgal for a grand work on the subject of Jewish persecution and, by implication, the need for a Jewish state in Palestine.
It's rather unlikely that Weisgal got entirely what he asked for. Werfel, of Jewish family, was far more conversant in Catholicism (he wrote The Song of Bernadette, after all) than in Judaism. Weill's attitude toward religion in general and Judaism in particular was ambivalent. He was proud of his Jewish heritage, but he had no desire himself to practice any religion. His letters on the subject ring with a nostalgia for the religion of an unreachable childhood. He was more secular intellectual – though one with a strong ethical impulse in his art – than devout Jew. Both Werfel and Weill came up with a huge work in four acts: part pageant, part oratorio, part opera. Bel Geddes's designs called for five stages. Weisgal had to gut the Broadway theater in order to make the sets fit the space and, in doing so, had no room to put the 100-piece orchestra demanded by Weill's score. The music was recorded, supplemented by sixteen live musicians (union rules) in a separate "sound room," whose contributions were piped in electronically. The production used roughly 250 dancers, singers, and actors. It also took far longer than a Broadway show, and so Weisgal ordered cuts. Weill estimated he lost a third of the music, most heavily in the fourth act. The show ran a little more than 150 performances and closed. The public, by and large, stayed away, despite rave reviews. The production bankrupted Weisgal.
Up until this recording, I knew The Eternal Road only from books, in the most detail from Guy Stern's The Road to The Eternal Road in A New Orpheus: Essays on Kurt Weill, edited by Kim Kowalke (Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-04616-2 [paperback], 0-300-03514-4 [hardcover]). Even so, these concentrate on genesis and production, rather than on music. Apparently, the score – Weill's most ambitious ever – was never published, and even determining that score poses an enormous problem, since no complete record of what Weill wrote has yet been found. The Milken Archives and the Kurt Weill foundations have collaborated to set, as far as possible, the 1935 "performance" version of the score. In the meantime, we have these highlights.
Are they worth the wait? I've always thought Weill one of the great opera composers, a dramatic genius who found and invented several different relationships between musical expression and text. On the other hand, some Weill seems weaker to me than other Weill. To paraphrase Kissinger, I would not have died unfulfilled if I never heard The Ballad of Magna Carta again. In this case, however, you bet it's been worth it – a major work from a major composer brought back, at least in part, from the Twilight Zone. The basic idiom lies somewhere between Die Burgschaft and Johnny Johnson. Weill leaves behind the acerbic language of his Brecht pieces (as recently as Die sieben Todsuenden, composed in Paris). Indeed, it amazes me how quickly and how often Weill's style changes throughout his career, to remain throughout recognizably himself. One also gets vibes from French neo-classicism (Weill had resided in exile in Paris before moving briefly to London then to the U.S.), as well as certain melodic inflections from Central European cantorial chant and folk song. Clearly, Weill attempts a synthesis between the classical European oratorio and operatic tradition and Jewish liturgical music, especially as it had developed in the Liberal German synagogues during the 19th-century. His own liturgical work Kiddush, from the Forties, sounds very different, much more idiosyncratic and much more a part of Weill's other late pieces.
The choral work here especially impresses, with some of it – the chorus of idol worshippers, for example – looking forward to Lost in the Stars. Other examples seem to take off from such French "Biblical" music as Honegger's Le Roi David. As far as the connections to opera go, we mean the music of Weill's operas, rather than Puccini's. The most operatic music, in this sense, seems to me an extended love scene between Jacob and Rachel from Act I. One can pick out elements that appear in earlier Weill operas, including the Brecht collaborations, but their context differs. One finds a new concern for lyricism, for the long line, without resorting to the standard kit bag of the previous century. We also see this same lyricism in the finale to Act II, describing the death of Moses, and the Naomi and Ruth duet in Act III. But there's plenty of power as well, especially in the Act IV sequence, where the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah rage and comfort, my favorite part of the CD. The music also rages and comforts, genuinely majestic, rather than the ersatz sentimentality of a De Mille, particularly Jeremiah's chilling aria "The living will envy the dead who are buried."
Questions remain. For example, did Weill compose the music to Werfel's original German text, Der Weg der Verheissung, or to the Ludwig Lewisohn translation of The Eternal Road? I infer the former from Neil W. Levin's liner notes, but since he drops discussion of the German work pretty early on, I have doubts. Also, a CD only of highlights, valuable as these are, raises several frustrations. Clearly, on the basis of other works, Weill could compose not only numbers, but entire scenes. Furthermore, from the evidence of the sequences of scenes that have made it to the CD, Weill could compose an act of cumulative dramatic power. We really do need the whole to get a just picture of Weill's contribution and achievement.
All that said, this CD should be greeted with hosannas from Kurt Weill aficionados worldwide. We get at least a glimpse of his most complex work in a mostly very good performance. The legendary Ernst Senff Choir of Berlin sings in English better than most English-speaking choirs do. Gerard Schwarz draws a good, at times even exciting, performance from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. They also accompany the singers sensitively. The soloists range from adequate to quite good, with the exception of Heldentenor Ian DeNolfo, who's fine as long as he gets to shout in his upper register. More lyrical singing undoes him. In his role as Jacob (the solo singers assume more than one role, for the sake of economy; on a CD, it doesn't really matter), he has a great deal of trouble singing his initial notes on pitch and with a decent tone. Still, it's only one truly annoying bump in the road. Kudos to the Milken Archives and to Naxos for this important release. I can hope a complete recording gets distributed before I die.
Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz