The culmination of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Weimar Republic retrospective, besides being moved by the splendid performances under Esa-Pekka Salonen, ought to have given those audience members equally attentive to the sound of music as to the noise of history pause. Over a century since its founding, their Weimar series reflected our narrow, naïve collective recollection of Germany’s interwar democracy; with only those aspects that flatter contemporary mores and interests held up as if they represented the whole.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Clive Barda
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda

Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill held up the bulk of the festival’s weight upon their shoulders. The pairing of two of their stage works at Disney Hall last week seemed to hijack the context of their lives and works, pitching them instead as steadfast precursors to the moral crusaders of our day – and somehow working in common aesthetic and political cause, no less. (The burning mutual enmity between these two composers was dissolved, at least temporarily, under the rose-tinted gaze of an unwitting posterity.)

At the age of 23, with the trauma of the recently ended Great War still fresh, Hindemith took on Oskar Kokoschka’s quasi-Joycean 1909 play Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen, wresting from it an opera which strained the limits of its still youthful composer’s abilities. On the surface, its battle of the sexes scenario set in antiquity would seem to be a startlingly prescient statement on today’s concerns about gender equality, domination, and violence were it not for the libretto’s implicit misanthropic streak. (That is, if the casual listener can manage to parse this obscure text to begin with.) More importantly, however: it’s simply not very good. A decade later, Hindemith would beseech his publisher to discourage any further performances; in 1958 he withdrew the score altogether.

Salonen made the most of this score’s pregnant, abstract expressionism, though making sense of it was a task that even he could not meet. It was a quixotic wreck –  morbid, disagreeable – but capable of weaving a strange fascination at points. Hindemith’s difficult and ungrateful vocal writing was met with uniformly excellent singing; exceptionally so from Madeleine Bradbury Rance and Christopher Purves, who each sang the leads.

Weill, on the other hand, proved a natural composer for the voice from early on. Though completed shortly after the Reichstag fire and the passing of the Enabling Act, the composer’s Die sieben Todsünden, with its streetwise, yet queasily artsy melodies, was the musical epitaph of Weimar’s twilight and fall. Like the Hindemith opera that preceded it, the music was sometimes hobbled by its libretto (Bertolt Brecht at his most hectoring and earnest); although Salonen’s nervy, Stravinskian drive easily carried one along despite everything.

Better was the Weill/Brecht collaboration on Das Berliner Requiem, the emotional centerpiece of the entire program. Amidst the historical maelstrom enveloping Germany during the period of its composition, the score is an austere oasis of quiet contemplation. The men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale together with members of the Philharmonic performed this eerily moving music that seemed to look more towards Bach and Schubert, than to Paul Whiteman. After the score faded to a close, it was baritone Purves’ voice that lingered in one’s mind; a lone cry against the long night about to befall Europe.

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