If you believe that musical theatre is a great art form for satire that highlights man’s inhumanity to man, you can’t do much better than the combination of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. The programme for last night’s Barbican concert could hardly have been more enticing for Weill fans: an opener of Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, Weill’s instrumental rendering of some of the best numbers in The Threepenny Opera, followed by The Seven Deadly Sins, with a filler of four of Weill’s finest songs.

Sir Simon Rattle
© Barbican | Mark Allan

The Kleine Dreigroschenmusik is a brilliant pot-pourri of pastiche styles from Lutheran chorale to tango, the living proof that acid satire is just as present in Weill’s music as in Brecht’s words. It’s scored for a theatre pit band: a dozen wind players, piano, percussion and guitar/banjo. Its  jazzy accessibility belies underlying polyphonic complexity. The wind players interweave multiple melodic lines and each instrumentalist is very exposed. Sadly, Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra did not make a good early impression. There were good intentions of bringing out the humour in the work, but it was bedevilled by small timing errors and several tempi felt rushed, with the contour of phrases not developed and a distinct lack of the sleaze that should pervade the music in numbers such as Die Ballade vom angenehmen Leben and the Tango-Ballade. Levels were often off-kilter, a notable example being where a tune played on trombone was much softer than the fills from the tuba seated next to it. 

Things picked up for a powerful rendering of the faux chorale finale, but balance problems persisted throughout the rest of the concert (all vocal), with the orchestra generally far too loud for the singers. This was a shame because there was some wonderful singing which was audible, but only if one strained to hear it through the orchestral sound; we could really have done with some amplification.

Dirge for Two Veterans - Andrew Staples
© Barbican | Mark Allan

Death in the Forest is one of Weill’s most surprising works, a Sprechstimme cantata depicting a dark tale of a man dying in the forest as his companions wait impatiently for him to die. Bass-baritone Florian Boesch was nuanced and emotional, a superb musical storyteller, but the two accompanying trombones, brilliant as they were, made it hard for us to hear him. Baritone Ross Ramgoblin suffered a similar fate in his potent, declamatory Beat! Beat! Drums!, Walt Whitman’s depiction of the terror of Civil War armies which leave no life untouched. Tenor Andrew Staples fared better with another Whitman setting, Dirge For Two Veterans, and with the beautifully evocative Lonely House from Street Scene.

In The Seven Deadly Sins, Anna has been dispatched across various cities in the US by her hypocritical, preaching family to earn money for them to build their dream home in Louisiana on the banks of the Mississippi. The family are sung by a male quartet (in a neat inversion of operatic convention, the mother is the bass role). Anna has a split personality of Anna I (the sensible one) and Anna II (the pretty one, a dancer in the original ballet chanté): Anna I colludes with the family to drive Anna II into prostitution even as they moralise on the perils of mortal sin.

The Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony quartet
© Barbican | Mark Allan

The LSO were clearly more comfortable here than in anything in the first half of the concert. Timing errors vanished and in spite of a similar diversity of genres, phrases were well contoured and dynamics and rubato managed persuasively through each of the nine movements (one for each sin, plus prologue and epilogue). There was plenty of bite in Pride (another faux chorale) as well as a real fairground feel; there were superbly hyperactive low strings in Greed.

This being a concert performance, Magdalena Kožená sang/spoke both Annas. Her voice was smooth and attractive and what was particularly telling was her commitment to Anna’s fluctuating emotions as her fortunes wax and wane. The highlight was in Lust, where Kožená made the split personality particularly poignant, empathising with Anna being in love while decrying the impact on her profitability.

The highlight for the male quartet, with Staples outstanding, was Gluttony, an a cappella barbershop number in which, unencumbered by orchestral cover, they raised guffaws throughout the audience with the naked hypocrisy of the family describing with relish all the wonderful foodstuffs that Anna should not be eating because fatness will damage her earnings.

After Kožená delivered the full force of Brecht’s fury at social injustice in the most super-sweet of voices, the ending left us hanging on its ambivalence: the family have their dream home, but at what cost?