Most fans of American music gratefully (if shamefully) acknowledge that it takes a German company to present our country's roots -- during the 20th century at least -- with the respect and scholarship it deserves. Multiple box sets of the work of everyone from Louis Jourdan to Johnny Cash to Waylon Jennings to Louis Prima and Keely Smith to Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant to Lefty Frizell to Bobby Bare to Little Richard to Hawkshaw Hawkins to Roy Orbison and Chuck Berry all point to the fact that Bear Family Recordings knows how to get the job done far better than we do. But even here they can outdo themselves. The case in point is this massive box set of the work of the greatest German cabaret singer in history, Lotte Lenya, wife of Kurt Weill and still, over 20 years after her death, the greatest interpreter and proponent of his music. This handsome set features 11 CDs, a picture disc mini-LP of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and a hardbound 250-page bilingual book (German and English) with exhaustive notes and annotations for virtually everything she recorded for Phillips and Columbia. One listen to any of the material here convinces even the most ardent cynic and dubious prophet of modern interpretations that Lenya's performances outstrip those of anyone who came after her, even those she sanctioned, like diva Teresa Stratas, much less the jive pop versions of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill songs put forth in mealy-mouthed trendy ad agency hype technique by Ute Lemper. Indeed, only Marianne Faithfull on her 20th Century Blues album came close, but it was only as a moth to a flame of the original.
The Bear Family set begins in 1929 with Lenya doing her first recordings of the Brecht-Weill material, with the debut performances (on record) of "Surabaya Johnny" and "Bilbao Song," the only two songs recorded from the breakthrough Beggar's Opera. Nonetheless, after nearly 15 years on a stage, Lenya's performance as Pirate Jenny, the whore from Turnbridge, took her over the top. From here the first disc fills out the Weill and Brecht-Weill material from the '30s, acquainting the listener with the voice that made Lenya the voice in the German opera even though she wasn't an opera singer. Weill himself made the comment, "She can't even read music but people turn out to hear her sing like they do Caruso." Disc two moves on to the '50s, even though Lenya made some recordings for the U.S. war effort during the '40s. The reason is that this is the period in which Lenya rebuilt her career after the death of Weill in 1950. The recording of Weill's songs in 1955 launched on record -- Lenya had been performing on stage from 1952 on -- the singer's return. The disc features 12 of Weill's most famous songs and a recording of The Seven Deadly Sins, all in their definitive recorded versions because of the depth of their grief and the determination to keep the work alive. These are also authoritative versions because of the power of their enunciation and the depth of understanding in terms of politics, class, and cultural issues that Lenya meditatively brought to Weill's work after his death. When the collection reaches discs three and four, a complete recording of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny recorded in the revival performance in America in 1957, Lenya has reached the absolute zenith of her power as an interpretive singer. The entire case is phenomenal, but Lenya is otherworldly in the title role (Diana Ross was not fit to even contemplate this role let alone play it in the 1970s while Lenya was still alive).
The collection continues with different sessions -- including the legendary "September Song" recordings from 1957 -- of Brecht-Weill material on CDs five through seven, concluding on disc seven with Lenya's breathtaking numbers from the theater production of Cabaret in 1966. The box moves into wonderful territory with Lenya's other voice work on the discs eight and nine, with eight being an entire spoken work, "Introduction to German Poetry," and nine divided between the stories of Franz Kafka and Brecht songs (from 1959 and 1962, respectively), as well as three recordings from 1943 for the U.S. Office of War Information. Already enough for a lifetime, the Bear Family set saves some of the best material for last. Disc ten, along with a Herkulessaal der Residenz session from Munich in 1960 (a return to Germany after 25 years in the States), also includes Lenya's near mythic Carnegie Hall performance from1965 in its entirety, which has never before been issued. The drama and passion in her limited range is unnerving, ice melting, and completely entrancing in its brilliance and passion. Lenya has the audience in front of her and on record -- eating out of the palm of her hand like a kind dominatrix administering the sweetest kinds of punishment before offering a reward for enduring such a tough, bloody kiss. Finally, on disc 11 are the now famous Turk Murphy sessions with Louis Armstrong, which were never released until now, and feature two takes each of "Mack the Knife" and "Moritat." They are breathtaking in their scope and open the meaning of each tune up to include an entirely new musical universe, as if Weill had been composing for this pairing all along. Rounding out the disc is a final performance of "Mother Courage," from 1965, a long interview and singing appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1975, and three unreleased pieces from The Broadway World of Kurt Weill, unreleased until 1998.
In sum, this overview of a 60-year career and in-depth look at how pertinent the music of Brecht and Weill were to the aesthetic development of the 20th century is indispensable. Lenya was, if not a diva, then something bigger because in her voice she embodied the voices of every woman who dared fantasize and every man who dared look into the mirror with horror and disgust. She took upon herself to speak the hidden desire reflected in the music and lyrics by Weill and Brecht and carry it to the middle, upper, and lower classes with equal vigor and venom and sultry, sensual repose. There is no more important document than this in either Weill's or Brecht's massive catalog. In fact, because of Lenya and her searing recordings, no more ever need to be done as long as these survive. The Bear Family set has excellent sound with a meticulous sense of detail given to warmth and accuracy of production, and a historical overview that cannot be broached even by scholars. Truly this is one of the most magnificent projects they have ever undertaken, and listeners all benefit by such a sublime achievement.