Classical Music

Lebrecht Weekly | Bartok, Krenek, Toch, Weill: 1923 (BR Klassik)

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Go back a hundred years. This album, a dazzling act of creative programming by Bavarian Radio, covers three young composers in hyperinflationary Berlin and a fourth dancing away on the fringes.

Picture yourself in the capital of a defeated empire, ravaged by street fighting and insecurity of every kind. It is 1923 and broadcasting has just begun on the Potsdamer Platz. Music students write whatever comes to ear in the hope of getting it on air. At the conservatoire, Ferruccio Busoni checks their scores and challenges them to go further. In the clubs and cabarets, they jive the night away. A loaf of rye bread costs five billion marks but the music rages all around.

Ernst Toch, comfortably married to a banker’s daughter, obtains a commission to write a piece of ‘radio blues’. His Dance Suite for three string instruments, flute, clarinet and percussion is more moody than bluesy, violating sonata form with a freedom seldom heard in his formal symphonies. This half-hour piece has consistent appeal and a very sexy clarinet.

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Kurt Weill’s Women’s Dance for soprano and five instruments is no less delicious. Weill, just 23, could easily be mistaken in some passages for the Viennese Alban Berg, until he delivers a punch of acrid Berlin cynicism and inimitable incision.

Ernst Krenek, also 23, was married at the time to Gustav Mahler’s daughter and seeking a voice of his own. Three a cappella pieces for mixed choir locate him among the tone-breakers. A couple of years later he would write the first jazz opera.

The album concludes with Bela Bartok’s orchestral Dance Suite, a multicultural melting pot that protested against rising nationalism. It was 1923 and a composer could not shut out the loud cracks of a fragmenting continent.

The performers here are Munich based. Soprano Anna-Maria Palli is stunning in the Weill songs. Howard Arman conducts the Bavarian Radio chorus, Cristian Macelaru the excellent orchestra. If this programme sets any kind of benchmark for 2023, we’re in for a thrilling year.


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