The Bitter Mirror = Songs by Brecht and Dylan – Bettina Jonic, soprano/ various accompanying musicians – Motema (2 CDs)

by | Jan 12, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

The Bitter Mirror = Songs by Brecht and Dylan – Bettina Jonic, soprano/ various accompanying musicians – Motema 50 (2 discs), 86:02 ***1/2:
This is a 1975 album originally released on LP, and now receiving the first CD incarnation (also available as a download and a 180 gram vinyl LP as well). Bettina Jonic, from Los Angeles and of Croatian parents, has long been known as a superlative Brecht performer, and to a lesser extent, that of Strauss and Mozart. But it is this album, as well as its associated live performances, that really made her mark. The gestation of this album, in her own words, “I conceived the idea for Brecht/Dylan in Lisbon, Portugal, during the events of April/May 1974. My hotel was situated between the secret police headquarters and the civil guard, and for three days was surrounded by tanks and fully armed troops,  Ten days after the events I did my all Brecht evening. This was the first uncensored performance in Portugal in 48 years. And the texts were of such an actualité to the Portuguese that I felt I had to find a formula to take people out of the comfort of relating to the past, or someone else’s ‘flash points.’ Thus was born Brecht/Dylan.”
How does it hold up? Textually very well, as these two “poets” whose texts speak of “effects of both explicit and implicit participation in war, violence and bigotry” seem ready made for one another. Musically it is a slightly different story, as the cabaret influence that so makes and marks Brecht’s texts, regardless of composer, sound curiously contrived in places when dealing with Dylan. For despite the many similarities between the two on topical matters, Dylan’s music is from a very different time and to my ears does not respond as well to a cabaret-style treatment. Brecht’s poetry can survive a heightened intellectual emphasis, and Jonic is plenty adept at imparting that through her magnificent characterizations and sensitivity to text, and Brecht does have a performance tradition that provides a basis for such an effort. Dylan does not; maybe it’s the difference between the highly-cerebral world of Germany between the wars and the overtly populist nature of Dylan’s music (which is almost anti-intellectual in nature), but it does not respond as well. (Dylan supposedly approved of the attempt though, as the notes indicate, but in the end that hardly matters.)
Those who owned this album years ago will be thrilled with the results here—it is an iconic album with much to offer, even though I think age has dated it somewhat. The remastering is flawless.
Track List:
The Black-Hats’ Fight Song; Train A-Travellin; The Death Of Emmett Till; The Jews-Whore Marie Saunders; It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding); Masters Of War; Song Of A German Mother; John Brown; Canon Song; Hollywood; North Country Blues; Song Of The Invigorating Effect Of Money; Song Of The Inadequacy Of Man’s Higher Nature; Mandalay; Nana’s Lied; Like A Rolling Stone; Private Jenny; God Is Mahogany; I’d Sure Hate To Be You On That Dreadful Day; Blowin’ In The Wind; Perhaps Song; As You Make Your Bed You Must Lie There
—Steven Ritter

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