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CD Review

Kurt Weill / Igor Stravinsky

Jennifer Smith, soprano
John Fryatt, tenor
Malcolm King, bass
* Elsie Ross, soprano
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
* Northern Sinfonia/Simon Rattle
EMI 64739 - 73min
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With the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance from the map of the author's beloved East Germany, Bertolt Brecht's fable about the evils of capitalism now seems more pointless and dated than ever. Fortunately, Kurt Weill's vibrant score can still be appreciated for its many merits. Certainly if you enjoy the Three-Penny Opera you'll find this work entertaining, though it is neither as tuneful nor as striking as the earlier score. Rattle and Ross have given us the original edition of the Sins as written for soprano voice, rather than Bruckner-Ruggeberg's well intentioned, but considerably less effective version for "low voice" (recorded by Ute Lemper, Gisela May, and others).

The difference between these two editions is obvious from the very opening bars: Weill's piquant high clarinet writing totally loses its bite and brilliance when transposed downward. I also prefer the virginal purity of the soprano voice (especially as sung by the talented Ms Ross) to the world-weary sound of Lemper or May. Ross's youthful vitality is also a considerable asset. The soprano's "family" – portrayed by four male singers, including a bass as the "mother" – typically becomes quite tiresome. Rattle refuses to take their continual whining too seriously, and the result is a lively and enjoyable self-parody. His tempos are brisk, and the Birmingham Symphony's playing is energetic and enthusiastic. In particular, Rattle transforms 'Sloth' in to a delightful whirlwind. Nor does Rattle forget for a moment that this work was originally intended as a ballet; his performance dances from start to finish. EMI's recording is open, transparent, warmly realistic.

All of which makes Rattle's Brechtian reading of Stravinsky's Pulcinella even more disappointing. The three vocalists are unremarkable, and, like their conductor, they seem more preoccupied with rhythmic precision than genuine musical communication. The analog recording is dry and boxy, the playing scrappy (an impression no doubt heightened by the closeness of the recording), and the interpretation lackluster. Hogwood and even Hickox – to whom I gave short shrift in an earlier review – find vastly more charm, grace, and wit in this music.

Copyright © 1996, Thomas Godell