Australians can thank comic genius Barry Humphries for the revival of interest in songs from the interwar Weimar Republic in Germany. As a young man he trawled Melbourne’s used bookshops and found a collection of scores from composers such as Kurt Weill, Franz Schreker, Hanns Eisler and Alexander von Zemlinsky, among others – all of them obscure names (apart from Weill, thanks to Louis Armstrong’s then recent version of Mack The Knife). The discovery sparked a lifelong passion, so much so that he put on a Weimar show with “kamikaze” cabaret star Meow Meow and the Australian Chamber Orchestra a few seasons back. More recently, several classical artists have turned their attention to this period in music history and the composers that either went into exile across the world or died in the Nazi death camps.
Now it’s the turn of Australian baritone Peter Coleman-Wright and the excellent Nexas saxophone quartet with Ballads of the Pleasant Life on ABC Classics. There’s a good smattering of Weill, including favourites September Song, Mack the Knife and the ballad that gives the album its title, but the real finds are the political and work songs of Eisler and Zemlinsky and, a little pearl, Arnold Schoenberg’s pre-serialist Dank. The love songs of Robert Stolz might be a little schmaltzy for some, but Erich Korngold’s sensual Glückwunsch (I Wish You Bliss) brings the collection to a poignant close.
Coleman-Wright excels at the comic – Weill’s Tschaikovsky is a scream – as well as the satirical and world-weary, though he occasionally sounds a little unrelaxed in the ballads. As Humphries says in the liner notes: “You will hear music on this disc created on the brink of cataclysm, proclaiming as it does with such intensity the survival of art and beauty in a hostile world.” Sadly copyright difficulties prevented the inclusion of lyrics.