Classical CD Reviews

WEILL: Zaubernacht – Arte Ensemble – cpo

A world premiere of an early work that might surprise you and force an acknowledgment of yet another side of Weill’s many-faceted art.

Published on September 20, 2013

KURT WEILL: Zaubernacht – Arte Ensemble – cpo 777 767, 58:47 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

There’s a lot more to Kurt Weill than first meets the ear; Threepenny is hardly his only work even though a newcomer to his music could readily be excused for thinking so. What is truly amazing is how talented he was right from the earliest of maturity. This piece under consideration, Magic Night, is labeled today as a “pantomime”, a piece for children that makes use of a soprano in the first part who introduces the whole thing—then disappears—and part mime and part ballet ensues.

The 22-year-old composer was not yet a household name when this work first appeared on a placard in a Berlin theater in November of 1922. In fact it was rather unusual that the piece got set at all. Its origin comes from red-hot revolutionary Russia in 1918 when it was thought to devise a children’s piece to show the new and emergent human being that would spring from the chaos of the Russian mess. But the civil war increased, and the theater man, Vladimir Boritsch, found himself trapped by the Bolsheviks in Vilnius. 1919 rolled around, and he sought a local composer to supply music for his scheme. He was successful, but finding himself in Berlin two years later he was again on the prowl for a composer. A political union of artists called the November Group attracted many who were reacting to what was happening in Russia, and Boritsch joined it—as did the young Weill—and the connection was forged.

Weill took up the challenge, borrowed from some pervious compositions like his String Quartet in b, and began to set the 25 numbers of the score. I should mention that the first performance saw an audition by a young dancer of the name of Karoline Blamauer—the future Lotte Lenya—Weill’s first introduction to her, though a more intense one would to occur some four years later. The premiere was successful and the reviews positive, and Weill created an orchestral suite of the music. But in the madness of Nazi Germany, Weill had to flee and left all of his unpublished scores behind. In 2002 a CD appeared of this work using the reconstruction of a surviving piano sketch—actually a rehearsal score—but in 2006 a handful of orchestral parts surface at Yale University and the score was glued back together, which was quite different than the rehearsal piano score used earlier. Weill’s instrumentation included a string quintet (with two violins), flute, oboe, piano, and percussion instruments. The music is thorny in parts and beautifully catchy in others; no doubt it challenged the youth of the time, and that might be one reason it was neglected, though I’ll wager it would definitely challenge youth today. But it is ingratiating, and a fine piece all around that completely surprised me.

The work’s premise is a fairy who sings a song in the middle of a bedroom of two siblings to arouse their many toys; the characters include a ball, jumping jack, little horse, and about six or seven others. No doubt today we would have to see an iPod and Xbox in the room as well, but for that day playtime was far more hands-on and creative. This score is definitely creative, and this is the first recording of Weill’s early piece. It is well worth hearing, marvelously recorded and played with sprightliness and enthusiasm in warm, finely-wrought sound.

—Steven Ritter

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