Wednesday, December 9, 2009

An unholy holy alliance - Marianne Faithfull and 'The Seven Deadly Sins'

I tend to have a bit of an obsession with always wanting to listen to music in its original form and in its original language - but when you get Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht translated into English by someone of the calibre of W H Auden, and sung by someone of the Weillian credentials of Marianne Faithfull, it would be the deadliest of deadly sins not to give it some attention. Hence today's post is devoted to this absolutely stunning version of the absolutely stunning masterpiece The Seven Deadly Sins, originally Die Sieben Todsünden.

If you don't know the work of Weill and Brecht, you really should - and you probably already do anyway. Songs like Mack the Knife from Die Dreigroschenoper or the Alabama Song from Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny tend to get covered left right and centre. Well, left, mostly - the savage satire of Weill and Brecht is deeply grounded in the principles of Marxism and anti-capitalism, which ultimately saw Brecht hauled up before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.

But nowhere is their attack on the evils of capitalism more severe, nor more savage, than in Die Sieben Todsünden, which tells the tale of a family sending their two daughters (Anna and Anna) out into the world to make money. Anna I is the practical one, Anna II the emotional one. Not surprisingly, Anna II doesn't get to say much - just to cry a little when she has to sell herself to make money in Boston, and to long for their return to their little home in Louisianna. But they are two sides of the one coin ("together we've but a single past, a single future, a single heart, a single savings account", Anna sings in the Prologue)

In each big city they visit, Anna and Anna encounter one of the seven deadly sins - transformed here into the horrors of capitalism and of the lust for money, always with the brilliantly cynical satire of Bertolt Brecht's lyrics, and Kurt Weill's unfrgettably bittersweet music, steeped in the traditions of Berlin 1930s cabaret and yet always with its nose turned in sneer at everything sacred.

The music flows along with a jazz-like swing in the opening Prologue; dances with an acerbic waltz in 'Pride', stabs along in a brutal march in 'Envy', and always with one foot on the opera stage and the other on the street.

The family, urging Anna and Anna on through their journey, chastising them from the wings for not making enough money, is sung by a fantastic quartet of two tenors (The Annas' brothers), a baritone (their father) and a bass (their mother - yes, their mother).

But Anna (and Anna) is (are), of course, the hero(es). Marianne Faithfull was already renowned for her Kurt Weill work before she recorded The Seven Deadly Sins and her voice, especially her late voice, is just perfect for this smoky music of the working class - declaiming as much as singing - and you can easily see her sitting on a bar stool, smoking a cigarette, seducing you into joining her journey through the sordid cities of America.

Although The Seven Deadly Sins sounds a bit like a cabaret-opera, it is in fact a ballet and so, even by Weill's standards, it has strong, hardy rhythms that sweep you along and sweep you up so, even just sitting listening to it, you feel a little puffed out at the end.

I tend to think it's the best thing Brecht and Weill ever did together - and for me, a passionate fan of both of them, that's saying a lot. If you want to hear it in the original German you should track down either the old Lotte Lenya, or the newer Ute Lemper, recording - but if English is your language, or if you just want to hear a sensational performance by a woman whose voice is as close as any to what this music needs, then go for this one. It's a stunner.

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