Kurt Weill’s ‘ballet with singing’ is one of the masterpieces of 20th-century musical theatre, recorded several times down the years but perhaps not as frequently as its merits deserve thanks to the very specific demands of its style, and the lack of singers who can match up to the muse for both Weill and Brecht, Lotte Lenya. Lenya made the first widely available recording, decades after she gave the first performance in Paris in 1933; this was the second, first issued in 1968, using not Weill’s original but a later ‘performing version’ prepared especially for Lenya. It stands the test of time well: Gisela May has the requisite smoky quality and total familiarity with Brecht’s cabaret-German. She is supported by a small cast of ‘Classical’ singers – notable among them Peter Schreier – but also by a conductor, Herbert Kegel, whose East German training and sympathies enable him to ensure that this music goes with the requisite sleazy swing without tipping into self-indulgent vulgarity. As Gramophone’s original reviewer remarked, ‘Brecht’s libretto strips bourgeois morality bare. Weill’s music, keen, clear and precise, is tender without being sentimental, at once compassionate and critical.’ In this reissue, The Seven Deadly Sins is coupled with some of the best-known hits from the rocky but fertile creative partnership between Weill and Brecht, all sung by Gisela May, and accompanied by a small studio ensemble conducted by another distinguished East German musician who understood the tenor of his time, Heinz Rögner, and deserves to be remembered for more than his excellent Bruckner recordings (reissued on Brilliant Classics 94686). There is ‘Surabaya Johnny’ from Happy End, of course, and the ‘Havana Song’ from Mahagonny, the Ballad of Sexual Dependency from The Threepenny Opera and two numbers from the scathingly satirical Berliner Requiem.
Kurt Weil wrote “Die Sieben Todsünden” in Paris (in exile) as a commission from a French ballet group. It is a “Ballet chanté” (a “sung ballet”) for singers, dance group and orchestra. Weill and his librettist Bertolt Brecht present a satire of the pretty bourgeois morals, and turn the 7 deadly sins into virtues.
This recording from 1966 is a classic, and of the most authentic performances, starring the great Gisela May, grande dame of the German protest song. She is superbly seconded by Peter Schreier and the Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Leipzig conducted by Herbert Kegel, unsurpassed in this repertoire.
Furthermore on this fascinating disc: songs from Berliner Requiem, Mahagonny and Dreigroschenoper.