Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Demande pas pourquoi

Today's formative-album replay: Various artists, Songs of Kurt WeillWeill wrote an operetta and a few songs in French on a brief layover between Nazi Germany and the U.S., and some fine examples of that overlooked ouevre are beautifully represented on this regrettably out-of-print collection from 1958. But next to those worthy discoveries is an even greater store of riches: This is one of the few records I've found on which the Brecht-Weill standards, from "Surabaya Johhny" to "Alabama Song," are rendered tartly and (to my mind) definitively in French.

It's not an exaggeration to say that hearing these gutsy, iconic German classics in the language and chanson idiom of Brel and Piaf and Gainsbourg is a revelation--it even sounds a bit like a homecoming. Franck Aussman's orchestra, clearly taking a cue from the Lewis Ruth Band arrangements, plays this catalogue in a way that's both loose and jaunty, almost casual, but also spikier, more syncopated than we're used to hearing it; the banjo and rickety saloon piano feel like part of the percussion section, and the percussion in turn feels like a crucial partner in the accompaniment. The vocals, mostly handled by the unflappable contralto Catherine Sauvage, have that distinctly Gallic sigh, edging easily into a sneer, that locates passion and resignation, the embrace and the shrug, closer together on the dynamic/dramatic spectrum than we Americans (and most definitely than the Germans) do. And the Francophone setting implicitly places Weill's signature harmonic language within an early-mid-century Continental context, alongside Milhaud and Satie (or his teacher Busoni) as much as Hindemith or Eisler.

These are renditions entirely comfortable with rubato, with pauses and breaths amid the forward bounce of the beat, but nothing ever feels lingered or fussed over, and this pays huge dividends with selections that torch divas have all but wrung dry ("Surabaya," "Barbara Song"). There are also a few unique "finds" here: "Alabama Song," for instance, which was originally written in doggerel English, here translated persuasively into French alongside the other German-to-French transfers; and the heartbreaking Brecht-Weill ur-text "Nanna's Lied," a 1939 gem which didn't surface widely until Teresa Stratas' 1981 watershed The Unknown Kurt Weill, offered here in Sauvage's sobering, world-weary rendition. While Weill's widow Lenya, for whom he wrote "Nanna's Lied" as a gift, was busy promoting his posthumous legacy in Germany and the U.S., French musicians of the 1950s clearly already had Weill's number: He was secretly one of them. This stunning record almost makes me believe it.

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