wed 06/07/2022

Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Guests, Queen Elizabeth Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Guests, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Guests, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Patronising, unimaginative, poorly produced and ill-conceived evening of "cabaret"

Cabaret as it should look

While Liza Minnelli belted out hits from the 1972 film Cabaret next door at the Festival Hall, we in the Queen Elizabeth Hall were meant to be getting the real deal - echt 1920s Berliner Kabarett performed by Germans in German. German actors had been flown in. As had members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Awaiting us was an enticing line-up of Weill, Eisler, Hollaender, Heymann, Hindemith and Schoenberg. The raw, rambunctious Berliner night life beckoned.

It was not to be.

For some curious reason, the Southbank Centre thought that stuffing a programme full of dull monologues would help elucidate this high-spirited world. So, for every five minutes of music, there was 10 minutes of turgid recitation. One song, one lecture. Now I don’t know much about the cabaret scene in Berlin in the 1920s but, judging by the talk of gay sex, trannies and brothels in the songs, I suspect sober historical oration at a lectern by a professor type wasn’t part of this wide-ranging art form’s remit. Needless to say, it killed the atmosphere. 

It felt like a rained-in summer party at an old people’s home in Ilford

Not that the rest of the programme had any kind of atmosphere worth saving. Framed by a 1920s suburban living room with frilly lamps and marshmallow sofas (a weird decision, considering suburbia was the satirical butt of much cabaret), the members of the Berlin Phil and their friends dilligently delivered a series of Lieder, lullabies, tangos and swing jazz sets. Their heads buried in their scores, their bodies as stiff as corpses, it felt like a rained-in summer party at an old people’s home in Ilford.

Had they done nothing to recreate the period, had they played their music under neon strip lighting wearing trackie bums, the effect would have been immeasurably better. As it was, with the forlorn attempt to recreate the cabaret spirit laid out before us with as much conviction as a festive display at Poundland, one couldn’t help but note how far it all was from the intended destination, how wide the gulf was between the ersatz and the echt. This wasn’t simply not-a-cabaret atmosphere. This was - aesthetically, kinetically, artistically, morally and musically - as far from a cabaret atmosphere as you could get outside of having the evening in a coffin. 

It's not the first misstep from the Rest is Noise festival. A few weeks back, we witnessed the suffocation of a nice little programme of Satie and Stravinsky, at the hands of a buttock-clenchingly embarrassing bit of contextual framing, most of which was again delivered by an actor at a lectern. I’d give last night zero stars, were it not for some slick playing from the viola (Martin Stegner) and piano (Cordelia Hofer) and some understated and affecting Sprechgesang from Dagmar Manzel. In fact I’d give the whole of the Rest is Noise festival so far zero stars for the way in which it has squandered the intellectual capital of Alex Ross’s brilliant book on such a patronising, unimaginative, poorly produced and ill-conceived series of concerts. And there's ten months more of this.

This was as far from a cabaret atmosphere as you could get outside of having the evening in a coffin


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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I could not agree more, except that I was so shocked by this truly dreadful evening that I left at the interval - as did many others. The laziness of the whole affair was spectacular - just because the Berliners are one of the best orchestras in the world does not mean they can play any music in front of them. Music is MORE than just notes on a page. What they produced was a perfect example of 'misuc' defined by Brecht as the ultimate (I agree about the viola player - glorious) and the choice of works they played beggared belief - why so much of the patently bland Heymann? Who was the director? The "speaker" would have shamed a school play ... Where was the bite, the passion, the anger, the politics, the context? I could go on

Igor, you have hit the nail on the head.

I agree with everything - except the quality of the viola playing. He was fine in the last item before the interval, but rather reminded me of Yehudi Menuhin's misguided attempts to play along with Stephane Grappelli in other pieces - stiff and slightly out of tune. He may have got better after the interval but we too left then!

For those who did stay for the second half, unfortunately it got worse and worse, with less and less music. What was particularly frustrating about the whole evening was the lack of context for the spoken pieces and much of the music, not helped by the erratic surtitling. Just having the date for each item would have been valuable - although this would have further emphasised the bizarre choice of items, overall ranging well outside the presumed original intention of 1919 to the early 30s. My overall impression was that it had been rushed together and not rehearsed apart from the performers' individual star turns - of which in all fairness no one would have wished to miss Dagmar Manzel's outstandingly confident performance. At least QEH turned the house lights down this time, unlike earlier in the week with the Emerson Quartet, and on a number of other recent occasions.

Hold on a bit. Yes, the balance between narration and music was ill-judged, but I didn't mind some narration in principle, to try to set some sort of context, whether political, social or musical. But I agree it would have been better to have scrapped the narrator and put some 1920s film of Berlin up as a backdrop (or films made in Berlin at the time - hundreds we were told). And we could then have had twice as much music - we were after all buying our tickets for the music. As to the set, was it in any case meant to be a recreation of a cabaret? Didn't the pieces by Profiofiev and Schoenberg that we heard turn up rather in the salons of the art patrons? And although some pople may have left at half time (the disgruntled who tend to blog about it afterwards) the vast majority stayed right to the encore and gave a good, warm round of applause. Yes, overall it was a bit disappointing, but it had its musical moments. And the music suddenly made me realise where Otto Klemperer got some of the ideas for his own songs, which I produced a CD of a couple of years ago (including his brilliant but wholly unknown cabaret song Entspannung, written shortly after he had fled Germany in 1933).

The main focus of this performance was the singing punctuated by the prose. The singing in the second half was moving, wistful and at times heart rending. Who will forget Hannah Cash or der Graben or the closing song Irgendwo auf der Welt, sung beautifully in English? for those who left at half time, I don't know how they spent the hour of so they then had on their hands but I would find it hard to believe that any use of that time would have been better than the songs they missed.

Well I cannot comment on your comment about the quality of the second half as I left in the interval. I do not blog, so I made use of my time on the way back home reading the book I had with me. Much more enjoyable! What a let down with musicians of so much talent and versatility; I totally sympathised with Jelka Weber the flautist who just sat there for most of the first half sitting on the set armchair. Tamas Velenczei the trumpeter didn't even get to sit on that! What a waste for my money and such an easy fee for them!

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