Ebony Band

Weill: Kleine Dreigroschenmusik; Toch: Egon und Emilie; Schulhoff: H.M.S. Royal Oak

(CD - Channel Classics #CCS25109)

Review by

Here are three pieces by German Jewish composers from the 1920s and 1930s, two of them comic and vocal, and two of them influenced by jazz. The jazz issue in Erwin Schulhoff's H.M.S. Royal Oak is especially welcome; the average listener, hearing the jazz presence in Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) and a few other famous works, may wonder about the substructure on which it rests. Any listener to light music knows the degree to which German audiences liked jazz, at least until it became a part of Hitler's racialized discourse. The program opens with Die Dreigroschenoper itself, in a reduction, Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, for wind band by Weill, whose premiere was conducted by none other than Otto Klemperer. This suite deserves to be better known than it is, for you actually hear more of Weill's encounter with jazz in its wind textures than in the full opera scoring. The middle work on the program, Ernst Toch's Egon und Emilie, is a 12-minute operatic parody that might be described as a character in search of both an author and a romantic drama. The best find of all (and all three of these pieces are both delightful and rare) is H.M.S. Royal Oak, which Schulhoff grandly called a jazz oratorio. In fact it's a one-act comic cantata, about the length of Trial by Jury and nearly as funny. It was apparently based on a real event: sailors on a British warship, forbidden to listen to jazz, rebelled against their commander. The ill-fated Schulhoff arguably understood jazz less well than Weill, but this little bit of smartassery is executed just about perfectly and given just the right level of sly youthful humor by the singers associated with the Dutch ensemble Ebony Band. This group, made of musicians from the Concertgebouw Orchestra, is one of several Dutch groups specializing in the still-neglected vernacular-influenced music of this period; with this thoroughly enjoyable release they step to the head of the class.

blue highlight denotes track pick