This concert in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis was less, as its title had it, ‘To the Cabaret!’ than ‘About the Cabaret’. There were cabaret songs aplenty, but the overall conception was of a portrait of a city in which the politically charged variety theatre encapsulated the hopes and fears of its population during one of the great flowerings of German culture. As a result we perhaps learnt more about life generally in Berlin during those 14 years between the establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1919 and its demise at the hands of the Nazis in 1933 than the artform itself.

© Belinda Lawley

The evening was devised by the series’ creative consultant Gerard McBurney as a single, uninterrupted sweep of narration, music and visuals. Amelia Kosminsky’s video projections provided a constant backdrop of superimposed archive photographs and film, and also gave us captions for each writer and composer as well as, in a rather unhelpfully arty font, providing fleeting assistance with the English texts of the songs. Substituting for the advertised actor Toby Jones, who was otherwise engaged, Simon McBurney, Gerard’s younger brother, took on the role of narrator in a pot pourri of snippets from various writers and commentators of the time, from Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz to artist George Grosz’s autobiography. Interesting as all this was, and despite McBurney’s guise of a world-weary, louche commentator on the scene, blithely scrunching up each page of his script as he passed on to the next, the spoken word ended up dominating to too great an extent.

A shorter script dividing longer sequences of music might have shifted the balance more comfortably. Instead, the wealth of non-vocal music included in the programme was made to feel like a series of snippets, as mere illustration of the spoken words. This was a particular shame given the drive and pizazz the music received from the Philharmonia’s dance-band configuration under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen. In extending the ‘variety’ idea to the whole sequence of music led to a lack of continuity yet also an eagerness to hear more of the purely orchestral music of Wilhelm Grosz and Hanns Eisler than the miniatures scattered through the programming here. At least we were given several movements from Schulhoff’s jazzily inventive Suite for Chamber Orchestra, played with rhythmic vigour and sultry insouciance, and as well as a brief march by Krenek.

Dagmar Manzel
© Belinda Lawley

Other incidental highlights were mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg’s delivery of two of Schulhoff’s outrageous Dadaist pranks: the Symphonia Germanica, an ironic distortion of ‘Deutschland über Alles’, with the singer kitted out as a one-woman band; and the daring Sonata erotica, in which the performer vocalises the act of love-making before urinating into a bucket. (The latter piece, written exactly a hundred years ago, wasn’t performed until 1994.)

But to sing some of the iconic cabaret songs themselves, the Philharmonia turned to one of today’s leading German exponents of music from this era, Dagmar Manzel, a familiar face and voice for visitors to Berlin's Komische Oper, where she has starred in a number of 1920s revivals. Here she truly captivated as a stage performer, with a husky but warm voice over which every word made its mark, coupled with a disarmingly deadpan manner, in keeping with the style, that conveyed the irony and often blatant outrageousness of the texts. She charmed in Holländer’s Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe (best known in English as ‘Falling in Love Again’) and found an affectingly controlled vitriol in Eisler’s Der Graben, bewailing the fate of soldiers in the First World War trenches. She was airily world-weary in Heymann’s Irgendwo auf der Welt, but the final sequence of songs, spanning from Paul Abraham’s melancholy Reich mir zum Abschied noch einmal die Hände to Heymann’s grim ballad An den Kanälen brought the evening, as if in parallel with the Weimar era itself, to a dark and troubling end.