WEILL: Das Berliner Requiem (1928). SCHOENBERG: A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46 (1947). BERNSTEIN: Symphony No. 3 "Kaddish" (1963, rev. 1977).
Samuel Piser (speaker, Bernstein); Noam Sheriff (speaker, Schoenberg); Abbie Furmansky (soprano); Jan Remmers (tenor); Christian Immler (baritone); Berlin Radio Choir, Boys of the State and Cathedral Choir of Berlin, Lucerne Symphony Orchestra/John Axelrod.
Nimbus NI 5807 (F) (DDD) TT: 85:15.

An interesting idea inconsistently carried out. The CD has a theme: three Jewish composers' very different artistic responses to the horrors of the twentieth century. Weill's Berliner Requiem addresses World War I and its aftermath, Schoenberg's Survivor from Warsaw a piece of the Holocaust, and Bernstein's Third the problem of belief after such things have occurred.

The good news on this disc is that for the very first time, the complete Weill Berliner Requiem is now available on CD, and in a good performance, to boot. The work premiered on German radio in 1929, but not until censors had eliminated at least one section. Brecht provided the texts -- I think some of his most powerful lyrics, apparently too powerful for the public airwaves even in the Weimar Republic -- which sing of the deaths of Rosa Luxemburg, the Unknown Soldier ("dead beneath the dead stone of the Arc de Triomphe"), and the returning soldiers and even civilians physically and psychologically damaged by the Great War. Weill created a masterpiece, eschewing the spectacle and theatrics of traditional requiems for something both intimate and resolutely secular. The opening sound -- male trio and guitar intoning what sounds like a bar-room melody -- hangs heavy over the entire work.

David Drew, through his writings and editions the man most responsible for the resurrection of Kurt Weill's reputation (as Lotte Lenya and Gisela May kept Weill's European work before the public), prepared a performing edition of the radio premiere in 1967, and, to his shock, this became the canonical score. In 2006, he finally produced what he now considers definitive. This restores Weill's original forces as well as the missing numbers to the work, and all by itself justifies the price of the disc.

A Survivor from Warsaw
, to a text by Schoenberg himself, comes from just after World War II and tells, in eight minutes, of Polish Jews rounded up by the Nazis for the gas chambers. Over an increasingly grotesque accompaniment, a speaker begins the story. However, as the Jewish prisoners count off at the order of the sergeant in charge, a male chorus enters like a bolt of lightning. The Jews break into the traditional prayers Sh'ma Yisrael and V'ohafta, affirming the commandment to love God, even amidst the horror. Schoenberg certainly doesn't minimize the horror, even during the prayers, but the sudden entrance of the male chorus at that point drives through the score like a spike. Schoenberg had lost family, including his brother Heinrich, to the Nazis. He doesn't accept easy formulas of consolation.

Bernstein's Third Symphony, subtitled "Kaddish" after the Jewish prayer for the dead, has frustrated me ever since I first heard it, shortly after its 1964 premiere. Conceived in part as a vehicle for Bernstein's wife, Felicia Montealegre, it calls for speaker, soprano soloist, choir, boys' choir, as well as huge symphony orchestra. Bernstein wrote the text, a long poem about the modern loss of faith, a concern he had raised before and would raise again. He intersperses his meditations on the soul of man with settings of the Kaddish, a prayer celebrating the glory of God and liturgically used as a prayer for the dead. Unfortunately, although Bernstein could write witty light verse, his attempts at serious poetry bled purpler than Barney the Dinosaur. The text he came up with one could charitably describe as god-awfully hammy. Montealegre's plummy delivery didn't help. The music, however, stands among the most magnificent Bernstein ever wrote, and it kills me that the speaker's text stinks it up. Bernstein himself recognized the problem and revised the speaker's part for his 1977 DG recording. He took out some of the most blush-making junk, but even that failed to redeem the poem. Critics have called the symphony kitsch, which with its text is exactly what it is. But the music alone is not, which has left me wondering whether one could perform the symphony sans speaker.

Skip ahead to Samuel Pisar, international lawyer, Bernstein friend, and Holocaust survivor. He furnished a new text for a 2003 performance of the symphony. I didn't think it possible, but his poem sucks just as bad as -- if not worse than -- Bernstein's. Furthermore, it completely changes the symphony's program by tying it to Pisar's role as witness and survivor to the Holocaust. I emphasize that I don't question Pisar's heart or the importance of his message, merely the aesthetic worth of his words. Furthermore, it makes little difference to the music, which works just as well as with Bernstein's poem. Perhaps one could judiciously select real poems -- Psalms and other Biblical passages, for example -- and this would work best of all.

In my experience, the Holocaust constitutes a horror of an inconceivable magnitude, and most words -- especially those that try to come to some sort of resolution, consolation, or peroration -- only diminish it and the suffering that continues to flow from it, more than sixty years later. To misquote Adorno, "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."

However, Adorno also wrote, "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream... hence it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz." I find the recital of facts and experiences far more powerful than most poems. The poems -- by Celan and Sachs, among others -- that keep mainly to description rather than to pontification succeed the best. Indeed, the genuinely affecting parts of Pisar's text confine themselves to actual memories. The rest is wind.

As I say, the Weill alone recommends the disc. However, the performances -- good enough -- pale in comparison to previous recordings: David Atherton and the London Sinfonietta for the Weill, Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic for the Schoenberg, and Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic, all on DG. The Atherton in particular (available on a DG "double" of Weill's music) remains, incomplete though it may be, one of my favorite recordings of anything after thirty years and includes the Mahagonny Songspiel, the violin concerto (with Nona Liddell), Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, and selections from Happy End, among others.

S.G.S. (August 2008)