Near-contemporaries Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Kurt Weill both had to reinvent themselves when they escaped Nazi Germany for the USA in the 1930s, and both adapted their well-established skills in the theatre to burgeoning areas of music, Korngold to the full orchestral, symphonic film score in Hollywood and Weill to the Broadway musical. This BBC Symphony Orchestra programme paired the music of both composers, but on the whole concentrated on works that didn’t reflect this link.

James Gaffigan © Mat Hennek
James Gaffigan
© Mat Hennek

Korngold wrote his Symphony in F sharp in 1954 as an attempt at making a postwar comeback in Europe as a ‘proper’ composer after his successful years in Hollywood. It went down like a lead balloon in the modernist climate of the time and has only really entered the repertoire in recent decades as musical pluralism has become more accepted. But it colours its obvious late Romanticism with a brittleness that reflects something of the times he had been through, and which makes its language no more retrogressive than figures like Barber and Strauss, or even at times late Bartók. With interpretation in the hands of American James Gaffigan, chief conductor in Lucerne, one could appreciate the Viennese heritage of Korngold’s symphonic language, not just the obvious forebear in Mahler, but people like Bruckner, too, in its recourse to big tutti unisons.

The Barbican Hall was at its most acoustically analytical in emphasising the translucence of Korngold’s carefully scaled orchestral textures, and giving bite to the forceful rhythms of the fast movements. Gaffigan gave the main theme of the slow movement just the right degree of rhythmic flexibility for its dark seriousness to tell, and he encouraged playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra that reminded us what a wonderful string sound it can produce these days. The finale may be the weakest of the symphony’s four movements in its thematic triteness, but the music fizzed and here, as throughout the performance, the BBCSO woodwind soloists shone.

Before the other main work on the programme, Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, we were offered an amuse bouche by the American vocal quartet Hudson Shad of close-harmony arrangements of short songs by Weill and a couple of his fellow exiles, Walter Jurmann and Dmitri Tiomkin. Highlights were Tiomkin’s rumbustious theme song to Rawhide, Jurmann’s schmaltzy Veronika, der Lenz ist da, Weill’s atonal and Dada-ish Klopslied and his sultry Speak Low from his musical One Touch of Venus, all winningly and wittily performed by this veteran group, worthy heir to the German Comedy Harmonists and here making its UK debut. (The shad, incidentally, is a popular fish found in the Hudson River – the group was formed in a room above Brooklyn’s Fulton Fish Market.)

Hudson Shad then took on the role of the chorus-like family in Weill’s ‘sung ballet’, with US rock singer Storm Large as the two Annas who tour through American cities experiencing all of the deadly sins along the way. Bertolt Brecht’s sardonic, cynical critique of US capitalism, penned in 1933, has never lost its relevance, and sung here in the fluid English translation by WH Auden and Chester Kallman it seemed as topical as ever. The last collaboration between Brecht and Weill and written as the pair were going their separate ways into exile, The Seven Deadly Sins sums up their Weimar style in its hard-edged anti-Romanticism – the very opposite of Korngold, in fact. As a result, the orchestral contribution here could, one felt, have been more biting – it seemed too refined, even tasteful, in combination with the raunchy, brazen yet often subtly drawn musicianship of Storm Large, whose captivating personification of the work’s joint ‘heroines’ rightly stole the show.