BLACHER: Romeo and Juliet.
David Robinson (Romeo), N'Kenge Simpson (Juliet), Chesapeake Chamber Orchestra/Jeffrey Silberschlag.
Albany TROY1008 (F) (DDD) TT: 71:47.

Greater woe, confin'd. Boris Blacher, born in China to Baltic-German parents, studied mathematics and architecture in Berlin, but soon switched to music. He became very active in the Berlin music scene of the Twenties and Thirties and in 1938 became director of a composition class at the Dresden Conservatory. However, his Modernist tendencies -- including flirtations with jazz -- as well as his opposition to the Third Reich's cultural policies put him crosswise with the Nazis, and he lost his appointment, as well as most of his living. The Nazis also accused his music of Jewishness. For all I know, Blacher may have been Jewish, but Grove doesn't mention it, nor can I find information on where and how he spent the war. Unfortunately, you didn't have to be a Jew to be "Jewish." To the Nazis, it was not only "racially" determined but also a state of mind. Still, as bad as the war years may have been for Blacher, I doubt he ended up in Auschwitz or Buchenwald.

Blacher soaked up influences like a sponge. You can hear bits of Weill, Stravinsky, Hindemith, and even Milhaud in his pre-war work. After the war, dodecaphony attracted him, but not as a way to undermine tonality. It was the new possibilities of order that he felt drawn to. At any rate, a strong Stravinskian neoclassic element -- unusual in a German composer of that generation -- adheres to his music throughout his career.

Blacher's Romeo and Juliet (in German, Romeo und Julia) comes from 1943. Although it premiered in 1947, Blacher needed plenty of courage to tackle such a subject. Far from the moony-swoony love extravaganza takes on the play popular during the Twenties and Thirties (see any number of Little Rascals shorts as well as the Cukor movie with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer), Blacher so cuts and trims the play that it becomes a discourse on the tyranny of the mob, a huge risk during the Third Reich. This results in a late Zeitoper -- that Weimar-Republic genre which included Krenek's Jonny spielt auf and Hindemith's Neues von Tage -- disguised as a "German" classic (the Germans have never been able to fully accept that Shakespeare was English). Blacher's adaptation is theatrically brilliant and dramatically concentrated. A pageant of a play becomes performable by six singers, a narrator, and an instrumental ensemble of nine players. I have nits to pick with Blacher's setting of Shakespeare -- occasionally, his declamation makes nonsense of the text (perhaps at the time, he wasn't fluent in English) -- but overall he strikes a really good balance between pure singing and plot advancement, just as Monteverdi said a composer should.

The music roams all over the map of High Modernism: cabaret, jazz, and the usual suspects, mainly Stravinsky and Hindemith. However, he tempers the range of allusion with great elegance and craft. For the prologues to the three acts, Blacher writes in pop, quasi-blues idiom -- a wonderful conceit. The music moves with energy and purpose, driving to the conclusion on a fast, straight track.

I wish the performance matched the music. I find only one decent voice in the bunch -- N'Kenge Simpson, the Juliet. Everyone else sounds too vocally young or too vocally tired and dull. Silberschlag, a fine trumpeter, achieves a sharp ensemble but can't generate much excitement, probably because the voices get in the way.

In short, this CD won't please everybody. I recommend it to those interested in Blacher and Modern opera, rather than in glorious singing and heightened drama. What we really need is another, better performance, which, of course, will appear after I am dead.

S.G.S. (June 2008)