Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Der Silbersee, 16 December 2007

Philharmonie, Berlin

Simon Pauly – Erster Bursche
Yorck Felix Speer – Zweiter Bursche
Torsten Kerl – Severin
Thomas Thieme – Olim
Mojca Erdmann – Erste Verkäuferin
Vanessa Barkowski – Zweite Verkäuferin
Burkhard Ulrich – Lotterieagent
Hanna Schwarz – Frau Luber
Christiane Oelze – Fennimore
Stephan Rügamer – Baron Laur

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor)

This concert performance of Der Silbersee by Kurt Weill and Georg Kaiser was part of the Deutsches Symphonie Orchestra’s series, ‘Von deutscher Seele’, initiated by its new principal conductor, Ingo Metzmacher. For the ‘German’ Symphony Orchestra, an exploration of various aspects of what it feels and is to be German seems apt. The range of the series, named after Hans Pfitzner’s cantata, has been commendably wide-ranging. This is anything but a nationalistic exercise such as would have appealed to Pfitzner. The full title of the play with music, Der Silbersee: Ein Wintermärchen echoes Heine’s ironical and bitingly satirical Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen, a cri de coeur against the reactionary policies and attitudes the poet saw pursued and enthroned in his homeland. Weill and Kaiser likewise maintained an ambivalent – and in that, profoundly German – attitude towards their country. How could they not in 1933, the year of its first performances, just before the Nazi seizure of power? Heine had been writing from Parisian exile, which Weill was soon to experience for himself. This concert performance did not present the play, which would have made for a very long evening indeed, but rather introduced a linking commentary with some dialogue, which worked well. There were very minor cuts and occasional, again very minor, reordering.

Metzmacher led a splendid performance. Rhythmic impetus was balanced with relaxation where necessary, which told the more for its lack of indulgence. The orchestra seemed at home with Weill’s idiom, shining corporately and in terms of solos, not least in terms of the fine principal trumpet. What might in other circumstances have sounded hard-driven in the opening here seemed well considered: a sonic depiction of the hustle and bustle of inter-war Germany. The flip side, equally well handled, was the sleazier side of that world. Symphony orchestras can sometimes seem too refined in Weill. That was not the case here; nor was it the case that all refinement was thrown to the wind, in vain emulation of a ‘jazz’ style that is certainly not Weill’s either.

The vocal soloists were also of a high standard and equally idiomatic in their varied ways. Thomas Thieme’s role of Olim, the policeman who repents of his shooting of Severin, is largely a spoken role. Thieme did well enough in the little he had to sing; the discrepancy between his and the trained voices did not matter too much. And he spoke his other lines with clarity and feeling. He seemed genuinely to be enjoying taking part in a musical performance: sometimes one could see his foot tapping to Weill’s rhythms. Torsten Kerl gave a very fine performance as Severin, equally alert to the twists and turns of Kaiser’s text and Weill’s response. Such was the dramatic truth of his portrayal that one barely missed conventional staging. Christiane Oelze sang beautifully as Fennimore, which is the principal requirement of this slightly vacant siren role. Her final, distanced vocal entreaties as Severin and Olim reached the Silbersee were aptly moving. Save for one unfortunate slip, Burkhard Ulrich gave a splendid account of the sleazy lottery agent, all too ready to dispense financial advice to Olim, serendipitously come into an inheritance. And Hanna Schwarz stole the show with her wonderfully vampish Frau Luber. Although it seemed a pity that so experienced a singer had so little to sing, the acting of the rest of her part suggested that she could readily pursue a career in the spoken theatre. The twenty-nine strong chorus’s performance of Weill’s deceptively ‘straightforward’ music was of a very high standard throughout. It provided commentary, incitement, and response rather like an updated version of the chorus from a Bach passion – surely a model here, as in Mahagonny.

If Weill’s inspiration varies a little throughout the score, much of the music is of a high quality indeed, and none is dull. This was an extremely valuable performance of a neglected work, which ought to point the way to further performances both inside and outside Germany. The German soul of Pfitzner’s title, if not his intention, should be duly gratified and enriched. It would have taken a harsh soul indeed not to respond to this fine successor to Heine’s satirical yet far from hopeless vision. To reach and to cross the Silbersee did not seem totally out of reach.