Madame Weill

Sep 15, 1999 at 12:00 am

The possessor of an unremarkable voice punctuated by a light Austrian accent, the flame-haired chanteuse Lotte Lenya nevertheless knew how to interpret a song – better, in fact, than many of her colleagues with more spectacular instruments. Lenya, the wife of composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950), was his strongest and most urgent interpreter. That’s clearly apparent in this reissue from the late ’50s, originally titled September Song and Other American Theatre Songs of Kurt Weill.

"September Song" is an oft-sung but misinterpreted number, but when Lenya got hold of it she projected its autumnal melancholy with touching immediacy. Perhaps that’s because Lenya was entering the September of her years – she was 59 when this album was recorded in 1957. The weight she applied to certain words, the fading on a tone, the careful but unfussy phrasing, all derived from a life lived to the hilt. In short, she knew how to communicate the richness of her experience.

She infused "Foolish Heart" with tender regret and with the sad resignation that the heart often rules the mind with painful results. She mixed romantic vulnerability with a carefree air for a fetching "It Never Was You." Weill’s Street Scene, with lyrics by poet Langston Hughes, is represented by two numbers: the bluesy "Lonely House," performed in a lazy, vaguely sad mood, and "A Boy Like You," a mother’s sweet ode to her young son.

After hearing Lenya perform "Speak Low," one gets the sense that only someone in their middle years can sing this number convincingly, an amorous declamation about the transitory nature of love. She changed gears with the "Saga of Jenny," investing it with sassy insouciance.

There are a couple of dogs on this otherwise fine collection. The melody of "Green Up Time" isn’t worthy of Weill; neither are the lyrics which were written by the usually clever Alan Jay Lerner. "Sing Me Not a Ballad" is also sub-par Weill, and Ira Gershwin’s muse was out to lunch when he penned the words.

Throughout, Maurice Levine conducted an uncredited orchestra with taste and sensitivity. There are several bonus tracks, including Lenya’s solos and duets from the original Cabaret soundtrack in 1966.

A few numbers from the 1962 revue Brecht on Brecht are included with music by Weill and others, but their quality is uneven. "Song of a German Mother," set to music by Hanns Eisler, is a sympathetic song about a mother who rues allowing her son to grow up to be a Nazi, but the propaganda is heavy-handed and the music uninspired.

More entertaining is jazz trombonist Turk Murphy’s 1955 Dixieland arrangement of "Mack the Knife," which Lenya sings in German. It’s followed by a similar version with Louis Armstrong, who sings with Lenya in his trademark gravelly voice. A few session takes disclose Lenya stumbling over a simple syncopated rhythm while a patient Armstrong tries to help her.

Oh, well, she was no jazz singer, and Weill never meant "Mack the Knife" to be taken at such a crisp clip anyway. Besides, these bonus tracks are mostly just pleasant curiosities that in no way eclipse the exquisitely rendered Weill theater songs.