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Classical File

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000

Kurt Weill: Die Burgschaft; Julius Rudel, conductor (EMI) -- It sometimes strikes me that Kurt Weill must have worked himself to death. Born in 1900, he lived just 50 years, but his career was amazingly productive and versatile, resembling that of another composer who crossed musical genres and died relatively young, George Gershwin.

In Germany, Weill collaborated with playwright Bertolt Brecht on groundbreaking stage works such as The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Apart from Brecht, he wrote thrilling operas such as Die Burgschaft (The Pledge) and Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake). In the United States, he landed on Broadway and turned out a string of musicals that included One Touch of Venus, Love Life and Lost in the Stars.

And that's just his theater music. Weill also wrote first-rate orchestral works, such as the Second Symphony and Violin Concerto.

The first recording of Die Burgschaft is a major event. Premiered in 1932, it was the last opera Weill produced in Germany before he was forced to emigrate when Hitler seized power. The work was largely forgotten until it became the centerpiece of last year's Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. That production, directed by Jonathon Eaton and conducted by Julius Rudel, was the source of this two-disc album, which includes the text and translation of Caspar Neher's libretto.

Set in the fantasy land of Urb, the three-act opera concerns a cattle dealer named Mattes (Frederick Burchinal) who loses all his money at cards. Besieged by creditors, he goes for help to Orth (Dale Travis), a cattle dealer who is glad to make a deal on behalf of his customer and friend, but then a series of lies and miscommunications between the two leads to calamity.

I enjoyed attending the Spoleto production, and the recording only deepens my appreciation of Weill's achievement in dramatizing conditions that led to the rise of the Third Reich. His urgent, restless score doesn't waste time, driving the opera right from the opening scene in which Mattes confesses his gambling losses to his wife, Anna (Margaret Thompson). The music never lets up.

The cast features Peter Lurie, Lawrence Craig and Herbert Perry, who play highwaymen, blackmailers, henchmen and other nefarious characters in wild cabaret-style numbers. Two choruses made up of members of the splendid Westminster Choir provide forceful commentary. If the festival orchestra is not absolutely top level, it gives a strongly committed performance under Rudel, a Weill expert.

Die Burgschaft is the second landmark disc to come out as part of the Weill centenary celebration. The first was Ensemble Modern's scintillating performance of The Threepenny Opera (RCA), which uses a new edition of the score and features HK Gruber conducting and playing Peachum. Grade: A --

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