Celebrating the Golden Twenties in coffee-house style with Berliner Philharmoniker

The members of the Berliner Philharmoniker performing Kurt Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik. © Frederike van der Straeten

In April 1929, Moka Efti, one of the most legendary coffee-houses, opened in Berlin at the corner of Friedrichstraße and Leipziger Straße. A nightclub without peer, top-class live music was an essential part of Moka Efti’s unique atmosphere.

For their The Golden Twenties online festival programme on Tuesday evening, Berliner Philharmoniker, teaming up with actor Dagmar Manzel,and conducted by Michael Hasel, the orchestra’s flutist, had put together a brilliant playlist, celebrating the spirit of Moka Efti. With works by Kurt Weill, Stefan Wolpe and Mátyás Seiber, the programme paid homage to the songs and dances of the era, in the guise of various instrumental suites, bridged together by texts of Trude Hesterberg, Lotte Lenya and Josephine Baker, read by Manzel.

The concept of a dance suite is, of course, as old as the hills, stemming from the baroque era. In his Leipzig days, J. S. Bach used to perform at coffee houses on Wednesdays, entertaining the customers with his keyboard suites. Derived from the dances of the era, both the eighteenth century suites and their Golden Twenties counterparts were stylized takes on the popular idioms, be they sarabandes or foxtrots.

While the gravitational centre of Tuesday’s programme was pulled towards the concluding Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Little Threepenny Music, 1928) by Weill, the lesser-know works provided substantial moments of discover in the course of the wonderful evening. 

The four-movement Panamanian Suite (Suite panaméene, 1934) derives from Weill’s music for a production of Jacques Deval’s play Marie Galante. A brisk ten-minuter, the concert version incorporates two tangos, a march and a foxtrot into a dance galore. Seductive and toe-tapping, the music, partially reconstructed by H.K. Gruber, is filled with catchy tunes and exotic harmonies.

Sparklingly performed by the members of the Berliner Philharmoniker and Hasel, the suite was an appealing affair. The middle movements, Marche de l’armée panaméenne and Youkali, Tango Habanera, were particularly engaging in their atmosphere and sounding hue. 

Preceding the Panamanian Suite, the musicians and Manzel opened the evening with a winning take on Weill’s Berlin im Licht (1928), a festive song written to celebrate the ocean of gas and electric lights setting the September 1928 Berlin Festival ablaze. 

Dagmar Manzel performing Weill’s Berlin im Licht with the members of the Berliner Philharmoniker and Michael Hasel. © Frederike van der Straeten

Mátyás Seiber’s Two Jazzolettes (1929-31) for a sextet of two saxophones, trumpet, trombone, piano and percussion are the most imaginative miniatures, reworking several jazz idioms into musical recreations worthy of Stravinsky’s jazz-tinged scores. 

Both spiky and enchanting, the Jazzolettes are instant charmers, especially when performed with such finesse and vigor as the Berliners on Tuesday. These contemplative gems served as a reflective repose in the midst of all the roaring dance numbers.  

Adapted by Geert van Keulen, Suite from the Twenties brings together six original short pieces by Stefan Wolpe, all written between 1926 and 1929. 

Launching with a locomotive-of-a-march, the Suite from the Twenties incorporates two airy tangos, a spellbinding charleston, a gleeful rag-caprice and a gorgeous blues into a cinematic panorama of the Golden Twenties. Scored for a jazzy ensemble of ten musicians, the suite is a festival of rhythm and colour, wholeheartedly embraced by the Berliner Philharmoniker with their joyful performance. 

In a letter to his publisher, Universal Edition, dated 5 February 1929, Weill reflected the concert adaptation of his masterpiece of music theatre. 

”I heard the Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (I deliberately avoided using the word “suite”) yesterday at rehearsal; I am very content with it. There are eight numbers in all new, concert versions, with some new intermediate strophes and an entirely new orchestration: two flutes, two clarinets, two saxophones, two bassoons, two trumpets, one trombone, one tuba, banjo, percussion, piano. I believe the piece can be played an awful lot, since it is precisely what every conductor wants: a snappy piece to end with.”

The composer’s verdict quite aptly sums the essence of the concert version. A veritable Greatest Hits take on the original score, Kleine Dreigroschenmusik has been a well-loved concert item ever since its premiere by Preußisches Kammerorchester under Otto Klemperer

On Tuesday evening at the Philharmonie, Hasel and the members of the Berliner Philharmoniker gave an invigorating outing for the upbeat score, providing for their online audiences ” a snappy piece to end with” indeed. 

A loving salute to music of the Golden Twenties as it appeared outside lofty concert halls, the evening brought the sounds of the era alive in an engaging manner that only an in-house live experience might have exceeded.    

Berliner Philharmoniker

Michael Hasel, conductor

Dagmar Manzel, voice 

Kurt Weill: Berlin im Licht (1928) for voice and jazz-instruments. Arranged by Otto Lindemann

Kurt Weill: Panamanian Suite (Suite panaméene, 1934) for chamber orchestra. First movement reconstructed by H.K. Gruber

Mátyás Seiber: Two Jazzolettes (1929-31) for two saxophones, trumpet, trombone, piano and percussion

Stefan Wolpe: Suite from the Twenties (1926-29). Orchestrated by Geert van Keulen

Philharmonie Berlin (via Digital Concert Hall)

Tuesday 23 February 8 pm

© Jari Kallio 

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