The Threepenny Opera Mack the Knife
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny Den wie man sich bettet
The Silverlake Ballad of Caesars Death [sung in an English translation by Rory Bremner]
Rhapsody in Blue
Crushing Twister [BBC commission: world premiere]
Pauline Malefane (mezzo-soprano)
Kevin Cole (piano)
BBC Concert Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 28 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The concert was devised to exhibit the successful, sustained presence of the jazz idiom in works of a classical stamp. Charles Hazelwood introduced the pieces, making it quite clear why he had decided to include them in the concert. He was lucid in his explanations and forthright in his opinions. I, for one, was excited to hear a British orchestra that could cope with jazz modes and rhythms authoritatively and with experience.
Jacques Ibert’s Divertissement is witty, urbane, deft and skilful. It deserves more performances. Indeed, Ibert (1890-1962) is a neglected composer, “an independent spirit … but very much part of the musical heritage that made him one of the most truly French of French composers” (David Cox’s programme note). The BBC Concert Orchestra played his music splendidly, with elegance and verve.
Pauline Malefane is an ample South African lady with an ample and silken voice. She has had an operatic training. She sang ‘Mack the Knife’ in Xhosa (the language of her birth?), softly, as an aria that gained impressive strength and humanity, even if it lost its bite. The vocal sound swelled with accumulation, but never became in any way an operatic caricature. The BBCCO, meanwhile, gave her the jazz-related original backing. Malefane then sang an extract from ‘Mahagonny’ in German, with due regard for Bertolt Brecht’s bite and acerbity and Weill’s jazz-based dance rhythms. In an English translation by Rory Bremner, she then delivered a ‘Silverlake’ number with savage moral authority – in resounding, commanding and forbidding words, not unlike a satisfyingly modern version of Dame Clara Butt.
There are three versions of Rhapsody in Blue (at least two of them by Ferde Grofé, the arranger for Paul Whiteman who had commissioned Gershwin in 1924). We usually hear the last one, from 1942, post Gershwin’s death, which is rather overblown – an inflated imitation of Rachmaninov. At the Proms, we heard, I think, the second version, from 1926, with a jazz combo. The difference was extraordinary. I found myself listening to what could well be a masterpiece rather than a war-horse. Kevin Cole (who inserted an unfamiliar passage, by Gershwin but later dropped, into his long solo spot towards the end) together with Hazlewood and the BBCCO saw eye to eye and produced a lean, terse, energy-charged lyric with surge, flesh and teeth. The opening clarinet solo was riveting in its quirky and idiomatic launch. This performance made virtually every other I have heard sound tired, stultified and overburdened with classical respectability.
Crushing Twister by Dai Fujikura (a Japanese-British composer born in 1977 who now lives in London) proved a fascinating and complex 8 or so minutes – an exercise in turntable-ism (in terms that a DJ would recognise), the practice of very slight speeding up or slowing down of a musical performance. The orchestra is divided into three sections; the middle one plays the core composition, the original; those on either side play more lyrically or faster and more rhythmically. So we have different moods, different speeds and, also, different tunings for the percussion. On first hearing, the effect was incomprehensible but exhilarating.
In his spoken introduction, Charles Hazlewood made a vigorous case for Fancy Free as containing some of Leonard Bernstein’s best jazz-inspired music. He and the orchestra played vigorously enough, but I was not caught up in the score. This was a long and tiring afternoon. The concert had started some 20 minutes late (due to the earlier Proms Chamber Music recital over-running) and was extended by a further 20 minutes beyond its anticipated duration.