What did Weill do to deserve this?

Kurt Weill: From Time to Time Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Es war einmal Royal Festival Hall, London Till Fellner Wigmore Hall, London International Glenn Gould Symposium Toronto, Canada
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The Independent Culture

Most major composers of modern times - and a good few minor ones - attract support groups, lobbyists, foundations and website chat-lines. Few, though,are so fiercely webbed and lobbied for as Kurt Weill, whose supporters are currently working overtime to ensure we don't forget, or undervalue, thecentenary of Weill's birth next March. The centenary year will make a prompt start in January when the BBC Symphony Orchestra devotes its annualcomposer-profile weekend to a Weillfest. But things have begun already, with a London Sinfonietta festival - From Time to Time - which opened thisweek at the South Bank. And the question all this activity begs is whether Weill can take so much exposure.

Most major composers of modern times - and a good few minor ones - attract support groups, lobbyists, foundations and website chat-lines. Few, though,are so fiercely webbed and lobbied for as Kurt Weill, whose supporters are currently working overtime to ensure we don't forget, or undervalue, thecentenary of Weill's birth next March. The centenary year will make a prompt start in January when the BBC Symphony Orchestra devotes its annualcomposer-profile weekend to a Weillfest. But things have begun already, with a London Sinfonietta festival - From Time to Time - which opened thisweek at the South Bank. And the question all this activity begs is whether Weill can take so much exposure.

That he's a cult figure with a popular following is undeniable. But a creative artist of conspicuous substance? I don't think so. He's a memorably giftedsongsmith, and his music works to the extent that it contains those songs. Beyond them ... well, you have a problem. And this problem was acknowledgedin the Sinfonietta's stripped-down performance of Happy End last Monday.

Happy End is a piece of doggerel cobbled together by Weill and Brecht in 1929 in an abortive attempt to revisit the success of their Threepenny Opera theyear before. Its storyline about Chicago gangsters teaming up with the Salvation Army is a farrago of nonsense that looks back to Major Barbara, forwardto Guys and Dolls, and comes off worse from both comparisons. Its only salvation (as it were) is as housing for a batch of songs, some of them justlyfamous, like the celebrated "Surabaya Johnny". And it was as a songspiel - in the manner of the original Mahagonny - that the Sinfonietta approached thescore. With no linking narrative, the songs meant nothing beyond standard Brechtian images of moral lassitude. But then they mean nothing anyway - sono loss there. I should add that they were generally well done: magnificently played by the Sinfonietta's solo-status instrumentalists, and sung withpanache by Broadway-style singers including the larger-than-life Shuler Hensley.

But what happens when you can't extract the songs and bin the rest was illustrated by Happy End's companion piece in this programme: a "school- opera"called Der Jasager, or "The Yes-Sayer". Jasager, another collaboration with Brecht, was based on a Japanese Noh play and written for children in 1930.Those details make it sound as though it should have been written by Benjamin Britten. If only ...

In the hands of Brecht and Weill, it's fabulously dull. Self-conscious. Tight-lipped. Prim. A moral tract about collective good that doesn't even make itspoint. As music, Weill considered its songless structure an advance on his previous work. He was wrong. Without the songs, it merely trundles throughthe standard, stunted repertoire of gestures that Weill invariably fell back on, crudely orchestrated and unmemorable. The pity is that there's so much moreof the same lined up for us during the next six months.

A more rewarding resurrection at the South Bank this week was the BBC Symphony concert under Andrew Davis of Zemlinsky's opera Es war einmal(Once Upon a Time). As you'd imagine, it's a fairy-tale: a lightweight piece but told with delicate and charming irony, and in a way that renders it lessvulnerable that you'd expect to feminist critique. For this is a piece about a determined Prince who breaks the will of a Princess too proud to love him. PartTurandot, part Taming of the Shrew, it humbles her, but to an end far happier than anything in Brecht. And the choice of story is interesting in that it fallsin with an autobiographically driven idee fixe in Zemlinsky's stage works about importunate suitors seeking love beyond their reach. Small, chinless andugly, Zemlinsky was in real life such a suitor. And if there's one line in Es war einmal that speaks from the composer's heart, it's where the Prince,eulogising the Princess's virtues, singles out her "forceful chin".

As for its music, Es war einmal isn't far removed from Viennese operetta: late-Romantic, with an ear to Wagner (percolated through the lighter sensibilitiesof Humperdinck) but prescient of early, Gurrelieder Schoenberg and at any minute poised to metamorphose into Richard Strauss. In truth, it's notmomentous writing, but it is exquisite and finely crafted; and it fills a gap in the chronology of central European music.

Wednesday night's performance was superbly played, the BBCSO on form again after its post-Proms fallout. And there was a good if not particularlystarry cast led by Christine Brewer (possibly too sympathetic as the Princess) and Glenn Winslade (slightly tired of voice but still heroic as the Prince).

In these days of period correctness, to play Bach on a Steinway is, if not exactly controversial, at least cause for comment. A handful of pianists - AndrasSchiff, Angela Hewitt, one or two more - rise above it. Otherwise, the choice of instrument demands justification. And although there were undoubtedqualities in the Well-Tempered Klavier selection given at the Wigmore Hall last weekend by the young Austrian pianist Till Fellner, I'm not sure his softlyspacious but quite cool poetics were justification enough. I'd have liked to sit him down with some old discs of Rosalyn Tureck for inspiration. And thethought passed my mind that a few hours with the recorded legacy of Glenn Gould wouldn't go amisss either.

But Gould is a dangerous mentor. And just how dangerous was clear to me when I was invited to attend the recent international Glenn Gould symposiumin Toronto. On this side of the Atlantic, Gould is remembered with reservations as a willful eccentric whose playing could be as perverse, distortive andugly as it could be revelatory, insightful and sublime. In Canada, where he's a national hero (they unveiled a statue to him while I was there), the insightand the revelation win hands down.

That he was crazy, a hypochondriac and a recluse who retired from public performance after a career of just nine years to make recordings in the dead ofnight dressed in an overcoat and mittens - well, it simply fuels the legend. It lends him colour as a personality. Canadians tend to feel devoid of colour, sothey celebrate it when they find it. Fair enough.

But there was a profound paradox at the heart of this symposium that seemed lost on the many delegates who shuffled to the microphone to say howmuch Gould meant to them, to us, to modern pianism, and how powerfully they felt his presence in our midst. Baloney. He'd have run a mile from all thesepeople. Think of the germs. And the fact is that since his death (in 1982, aged only 50), his contribution to modern pianism has been questionable. Periodconsciousness has intervened.

What you can say about Gould is that at a fixed point in time - around 1955, when he was in his twenties and made the landmark recording of theGoldberg Variations, for which he will always be known - he demonstrated an approach to Bach that touched a nerve in listeners throughout the globe.That was a special moment. But it came and went. Glenn Gould is history now. We can't revive him, and we sure as hell can't follow his example.

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