In his insightful accompanying notes to the SOMM Recordings CD of Kurt Weill’s Symphony No. 2 and the composer’s Violin Concerto, Robert Matthew-Walker writes about the economic crisis that reduced the number of large symphony orchestras in the aftermath of the Great War of 1914-18 to considerably fewer than the many that existed during the first decade of the 20th century.  

Resourceful composers – Kurt Weill among them –trimmed the size of the forces required to play their music, with Gershwin, Milhaud, Krenek, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Honegger, among many, reinventing the instrumentations of much of the music of the time, and making artistic-musical decisions dictated by economic circumstances.

The advent of sound in cinema and the blurring of the dividing lines between “serious” music and that of the cabarets and cafés of the time helped create compositions in which traditional symphonic instruments kept company with the saxophones and the xylophone and the battery of the jazz orchestra.

Weill had studied composition with Ferruccio Busoni, so that what he could not achieve with a full orchestration that was simply unavailable he could approximate with the harmony and counterpoint he had studied and mastered with his Italian mentor. Compositionally the violin concerto of Weill’s is like nothing I had ever heard before from the author of The Threepenny Opera: its harmonies prickly and not far removed from the atonalities of the Second Viennese School. And yet, melodies with their roots in the Berlin cabarets of the 1920’s keep invading the structural severity and serious tone of Weill’s “serious” compositions.

Kurt Weill’s off-beat instrumentation for his violin concerto is one of a kind: two flutes (piccolo), oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, trumpet, timpani, percussion (snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, xylophone) and basses. This musical motley crew of fifteen or so players achieve terrific results in the SOMM recording of his 1924 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra of Wind Instruments (with percussion and double bass added), featuring the superb Hungarian violinist Tamás Kocsis soloing with the authoritative Dutch maestro Jac van Steen leading the very fine Ulster Orchestra.

The other work in the SOMM CD has a remarkably different story. In late 1933 Weill and Lotte Lenya were living in Paris, where and when they made the acquaintance of Winnaretta Singer, nee Princess Edmond de Polignac. Miss Singer, the American-born heiress to the Singer sewing machine took a liking to the young composer and his wife, commissioning from him a new orchestral work: the Symphony No. 2. The work was premiered by Bruno Walter conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.

Walter wrote how, on studying the score, he was impressed by its “nocturnal, uncanny, mysterious atmosphere.” He suggested the title “Three Night Scenes”, which Weill OK’d.

It is truly remarkable that the composer of this music is the same unassuming, near-sighted, chain-smoking man who authored the quintessentially American One Touch of Venus, Lady in the Dark, and Street Scene.

Rafael de Acha © 2022

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