Kurt Weill’s Violin Concerto & 2nd Symphony

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WEILL: Symphony No. 2. Violin Concerto* / *Tamás Kocsis, vln; Ulster Orchestra; Jac van Steen, cond / Somm Recordings SOMMCD 280

This one intrigued me simply because I had never heard any instrumental classical music written by Kurt Weill, best known for his avant-garde musical Three Penny Opera and his equally avant-garde opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny—not to mention dozens of hit songs which he wrote after coming to America and giving up classical composition. The Violin Concerto dates from 1924, the Second Symphony from a decade later.

Although there are clear signposts in this music that one can recognize as being Weill-like, its structure is on a larger scale, following standard composition practice of his time. Those signposts are specifically in his use of stepwise harmony and a stiff, but lively, rhythmic drive related to ragtime. Here, too, he also makes quite a bit out of alternating 4/4 and 3/4 time without trying to make it sound whimsical or amusing, as he did in the two more famous works mentioned above.

In addition to the briskness of his tempi and rhythms, one also hears the brusqueness that permeate Three Penny and Mahagonny. Interestingly, if I were to hear this symphony “cold,” without knowing who wrote it, I might place it as being by a relatively conservative but still modern American composer of the mid-to-late 1950s. Our composers were turning out similar pieces around that time. This is, however, more of a tribute to Weill for inventing this style than to those later Americans for copying it.

Some themes are juxtaposed, but in the development section he is quite strict about taking his basic material to interesting places. Even more interestingly, the first subject of the second movement, though marked “Largo,” is not only far jauntier than any symphonic “Largo” I’ve ever heard, but almost sounds like the music of African-American composer William Grant Still without directly copying his style. Yet this, too, eventually leads into typically Weill-like figures, a quirky lyrical melody played by the trombone against stop-time chords, followed by its extension played by the violins with stop-time chords played by the winds. Despite the somewhat stiff rhythms, what develops eventually almost sounds like a tango.

The “Allegro vivace” is also whimsical but, to my ears, not as original or as fascinating as the first two movements—at least, not until we pass the halfway mark, where things really liven up, and we get a sort of frantic tarantella.

There appear to be at least seven other recordings of the Symphony, one each by Gary Bertini, Mariss Janssons, Anthony Beaumont, Julius Rudel, Marin Alsop, Lahav Shani, Jürgen Bruns and Michel Swierczewski. I sampled the Rudel recording but, although his tempi seem to be quicker than van Steen’s, he doesn’t capture the same swagger in the music. Alsop captures the swagger better, but her tempi are so slow as to practically kill the momentum in the music. Swierczewski os really fast, but to my ears gets the whole feeling of the music wrong. I felt that Shani’s recording on Warner Classics, with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, was the only one as good as this one.

The Violin Concerto opens with slow, mysterious music played by clarinets and flutes with little punctuations by the low brass and snare drum. The violin kind of sneaks in about a minute into the first movement, playing an atonal melody that weaves around the winds until they fall away, but the French horns play a soft rhythmic figure against it for a while. Weill keeps this whimsical little game up for quite some time, shifting and changing the orchestral rhythms while the violin continues to saw away at its quirky melodic line. This piece sounds far less “American,” but is very much in line with a great deal of mid-to-late 1920s German modern music. Once again, van Steen conducts with excellent energy and a real feeling for the music. It doesn’t sound so much like a real violin concerto as it does an orchestral piece with solo violin obbligato.

This quiet, rather subdued atmosphere continues into the rhythmic second movement, where one hears an extended xylophone solo. Weill almost seems to be using a chamber orchestra, and quite a small one at that, with a very heavily reduced string section. This is really some wacky music! The third section is actually listed as IIb, “Cadenza,” but it, too, is highly unorthodox in both style and structure. The end of this movement is IIc, “Serenata,” another odd little melody, here set to a syncopated figure. Indeed, even the third movement, though in a faster tempo than the first two, uses just a handful of instruments and says within its odd, atonal little sound world.

I found this a fascinating disc and the performances first-rate. Unless you have better ones in your collection, I say, go for it!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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