Saturday, April 3, 2010

The gutsy voice of Ute Lemper and the Weill/Brecht masterpiece 'Die Sieben Todsünden'

In keeping with the religious themes of the past few days’ blogging, and of the season, it seemed appropriate today to turn back to a piece of music that I wrote about here some months ago, the Kurt Weill/Betolt Brecht collaboration Die Sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins) (see 9th December 2009). The version I focussed on back then was the English translation, sung so effectively by Marianne Faithfull, but today I thought I’d go back to the German original, albeit in a version transcribed for low voice, sung by the woman who, after Kurt Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya, must surely be one of the leading exponents of his music – Ute Lemper.

As great and all as Marianne Faithfull’s version is, there is something about the music of Kurt Weill, not to mention the words by Bertolt Brecht, that never sounds so inherently right as when it is sung in German. It is music that conjures up images of the Berlin cabarets of the 1930s, even when it is performed with a full orchestra, like it is here and the gutsy, musky voice of Ute Lemper fits in just perfectly.

The music of Kurt Weill straddles the classical and low-brow stage genres and, when it’s peppered with the satirical genius of Bertolt Brecht, as it often is, the results can be amongst the most plucky, powerful stuff ever to come from the 20th century.

But the challenge is to get the right voice for it. A lot of people savagely maligned the singing of Lotte Lenya who, they argued, really couldn’t sing at all. Personally, I’ve always thought she was just right for those strident, demimonde characters that Weill and Brecht so cleverly created, characters which both composer and librettist intended to be singing actors, rather than acting singers.

Ute Lemper arguably tips the scales slightly in the opposite direction. Hers is a much more musical voice than Lenya’s, but by no means operatic or classical and still very much the voice of the stages of nightclubs rather than of operas. But she can capture the whimsical jazz-like lilt of the prologue as convincingly as she captures the raucous gutsiness of ‘Neid’ (Envy). She bellows when she needs to, like in ‘Zorn’ (Anger), while still managing to catch just the right level of detachment and emptiness needed for ‘Unzucht’ (Lust).

Die Sieben Todsünden is, of course, a parable about capitalism. It should never sound sentimental, despite the sad, sorrowful thread that weaves through its story. Its edges should be rough and uneven, and even the passages written for the operatic quartet of the two Annas’ family (two tenors and a baritone for their brothers and father, a bass for their mother), should sound grotesque rather than cultivated and refined.

All of that is achieved wonderfully on this recording, even if some of the speeds are a little slower than I am used to. The family is sung by a pretty honourable quartet of German opera singers, the orchestra is conducted by John Mauceri, one of Leonard Bernstein’s most successful protégés, but the show really belongs to Ute Lemper who seems here to be able to mix all seven of the deadly sins into one awesomely entrancing melting pot of music – sexy, intrepid, indomitable.

Die Sieben Todsünden is, I think, even counting Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s best collaboration – short and snappy but incredibly powerful and, of course, great music. And if you can only ever have one recording of it, you could do much worse than picking this one, with Ute Lemper.

Thanks to Lucas for prodding me to listen to it today!

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