A remarkable new recording, issued in the spring of 2019, bears more fruit of the great, long-running partnership between Weill, HK Gruber, and Ensemble Modern. It consists of three works, all performed, and heard, as if for the first time. First up: Mahagonny Songspiel, the world premiere of the critical edition, published in 2016. Soloists Ute Gfrerer, Winnie Böwe, and amarcord render the vocal lines with precision and style, while Gruber and Ensemble Modern give an ear-opening reading of the revolutionary score, Weill and Brecht’s first attempt to strike a new path for musical theater.
The second work, Chansons des quais, is also a premiere–a new cycle derived from Weill’s songs and instrumental numbers from the ill-fated play Marie galante (1934, book and lyrics by Jacques Deval). Written less than a decade after Mahagonny, the music here nonetheless stems from an entirely different time and place, and therefore reveals an entirely different mood. Though the show ran only a few weeks in Paris, several of the songs immediately joined the repertoire of Lys Gauty, Florelle (who played the lead onstage), and other French singers. Weill stalwart Gfrerer shows off her French chops here, with expert support from amarcord, Ensemble Modern, and HK Gruber.
A crowd-pleasing favorite closes out the CD: Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, Weill’s instrumental reworking of hits from the runaway success The Threepenny Opera, which ran all over Europe in the late twenties and early thirties. Gruber and Ensemble Modern breathe life and vigor into a warhorse with skillfully chosen tempos and crack ensemble playing. It’s not easy to make a piece that has been recorded 25 times sound new; if you want to hear it done, check out this CD.
Other features: the bonus download, Weill’s “Song of the Blind Girl,” recorded both in German and English by Gfrerer and pianist Shane Schag. The song, composed for a Berlin revue in 1931, lay undiscovered in a Berlin library until 2017. Purchasers of the CD may download both mp3 tracks from Ensemble Modern’s web site. The 48-page CD booklet features essays by Kim H. Kowalke and Elmar Juchem along with complete lyrics in three languages. This disc is a must-have for anyone interested in Weill’s theater music.
And who better than Ensemble Modern and HK Gruber to make it? The conductor and the band made their first Weill recording thirty years ago, an album of short works titled Berlin im Licht, released on the Largo label. Ten years later, they collaborated on a definitive recording of the score of Die Dreigroschenoper with Max Raabe, Jürgen Holtz, Sona MacDonald, Nina Hagen, and others on BMG. Other than the lapse of time between Weill recordings, what’s not to like?
Issued on Ensemble Modern Medien EMCD-040.
“. . . the Kurt Weill Foundation’s critical edition [of Mahagonny Songspiel] is recorded here for the first time. The opening of the “Benares-Song” has a deep, burning intensity. Every depth is plumbed; every syllable illuminated. The dreadful tedium and sadness of life is both celebrated and mocked. We simultaneously despise and love these coarse, savage men, because they leave such a distinctive musical impression. This is truly music for the 21st century–nothing could sound more up-to-date.
“The interpreters of the song cycle from Weill’s Marie Galante, newly conceived by Kim H. Kowalke, plunge in with the same fervor, and they are completely satisfying! With the vocal quartet amarcord, soprano Ute Gfrerer finds exactly the right tone to convey Marie’s agony and thirst for a different life. The members of Ensemble Modern, on their own in Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, deliver a performance both elegant and bursting with enthusiasm and excitement. You will seldom hear it performed so well.”
—Fono Forum, 1 August 2019, Bernd Feuchtner
“Who better to realize these deceptively light-footed works, with their confident crossing of musical boundaries, than Ensemble Modern? And who has a more exact sense of this unique sound world than chansonnier-composer-conductor HK Gruber? . . . In Winnie Böwe and Ute Gfrerer, Gruber has two accomplished masters of this style on board; together with the vocal ensemble amarcord they give Mahagonny a luster both bright and deep.”
—Frankfurter Rundschau, 22 May 2019, Hans-Jürgen Linke
“When Ensemble Modern and HK Gruber hook up, you can expect sparks to fly. The highlight of this CD is Mahagonny Songspiel (1927), the first collaboration of Weill and Brecht and an early example of a critique of capitalism in music. And you get to hear one of today’s foremost Weill interpreters, Ute Gfrerer. The takeaway: The band’s brilliantly executed chords and impressive precision prove that Ensemble Modern under HK Gruber, in their third Weill CD together, are still masters of this sound.”
–HR2 (Kultur), 11 June 2019, Niels Kaiser
“. . . a rousing homage to the great Kurt Weill, with a sure grasp of his style. A joy to hear.”
—Der Kurier, 5 May 2019, PJ
Ensemble Modern press release
Learn more about Chansons des quais
Learn more about Kleine Dreigroschenmusik
Learn more about Mahagonny Songspiel