Mary Carewe (voice) and Philip Mayers (piano)
Orchid Classics cat. no. ORC 100021
'Life is a cabaret', someone said, or sang, and perhaps the reverse would have to be true as well. So welcome to this cabaret and welcome to life – life as it is lived in the early hours, or more likely as it is remembered, and dreamed of, and hoped for. Lucklessness is the main dish, with irony on the side, and a squeeze of optimism.
The programme spans almost the whole of the twentieth century, with contributions from both sides of the Atlantic, but we seem to be listening to one person's story. 'Diamonds are forever', she sings, with an erotic charge rather different from Shirley Bassey's on the soundtrack of the 1971 film. Would those, then, be the same diamonds she goes on to mention in 'What good would the moon be?', from Kurt Weill's 1947 show Street Scene? The piano makes the connection, but the singer is moving on, from sensuality to the 'L' word – only to pull herself back because, as the 1950 John Duke song has it, 'I can't be talkin' of love'. Duke, a conservatory-trained musician and a professor, was a composer mostly of art songs, but at this time of night the barriers have dropped.
Friedrich Hollaender was also conservatory-trained, in Berlin, with the composer of Hansel and Gretel his teacher, before he started contributing to the city's thriving cabaret and film culture in the last years of the Weimar Republic. His 'O just suppose' of 1928 neatly complicates the emerging picture, and perhaps explains why the singer has to tell herself, to Noël Coward's words, 'it's no use competing'. Written for the 1925 revue On with the Dance, 'Poor little rich girl' was one of Coward's earliest successes as a songwriter. Samuel Barber's 'Promiscuity' then seems to take us back to Hollaender's triangle, if not to some larger polygon, but the words here are more than a thousand years old, and Irish, the song coming from a group in which the composer set old Irish poems (Hermit Songs, 1955).
To whom can a woman turn under such circumstances? Her hairdresser. Carl Vine's 'Aria' (1984) is the luminous remnant of a planned operatic collaboration with Patrick White, featuring the wife of an executive. And perhaps this is the same person who finds herself right here, at a cabaret, in 'Over the piano', from the first of four volumes of cabaret songs by William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein.
Two songs by the Russian-born composer Mischa Spoliansky take us back to Berlin, where Spoliansky studied at the same conservatory as Hollaender (but a little earlier) and, together with the writer Marcellus Schiffer, helped create twenties-style Berlin cabaret song. In 'Maskulinum – Femininum' our protagonist has new problems, and new solutions, while in 'It's all a swindle' she gives us some of the social criticism for which the cabaret stage was also a platform. But though we might think of Berlin cabaret as a phenomenon of the Weimar period, it was already going strong at the turn of the century, when composers for it included Arnold Schoenberg and his brother-in-law Alexander von Zemlinsky, whose weird 'Herr Bombardil' was one of a pair of cabaret songs.
Social criticism turns into outright political satire in Stefan Wolpe's astonishing singing cartoon of 1930, 'Hitler'. Three years later the man was in power, and Wolpe was one of many composers forced to leave Berlin, along with Zemlinsky, Spoliansky, Hollaender and Weill. They went in various directions, Weill ultimately to New York, which is where we find him again in, appropriately enough, 'I'm a stranger here myself' – though the song, from the 1943 show One Touch of Venus, for which Ogden Nash wrote the lyrics, returns us to cabaret's wary, weary familiarity with the pinball machine of love. There our singing traveller finds herself at a low point in 'At the last lousy moments of love', another number from the Bolcom/Weinstein books of cabaret songs.
Cabaret style, though, is essentially in the performance, and it can find its material in classical art song or pop, given a hint of sophistication to work on. Two songs from the former category come next, both to words by distinguished writers and both having to do with being alone. Paul Bowles set a letter he had received from Gertrude Stein in January 1932, when he was in hospital in Turin and she was urging him to return to Paris. 'Solitary hotel', from another Barber collection, Despite and Still (1968-9), takes a passage from Joyce's Ulysses into a slow tango.
Soon, however, the character before us is back in action. Philip Mayers's Bach-style accompaniment neatly offsets her readiness to 'Do it again', in a song Gershwin wrote with one of his regular lyricists of the time, Buddy DeSylva, for a 1922 Broadway show, The French Doll. 'Candy machine' – by Jack Gottlieb, who, like his near contemporary Bolcom, was part of the late-twentieth-century cabaret revival – amplifies that readiness outrageously, after which it would have to be 'Toothbrush time', and another song from Bolcom and Weinstein. The partners here seem at first to be winding down, but turn out to be winding up. But then, if cabaret is all about disillusionment, it is also all about ambiguity. Both figure in Charles Ives's joky 'Romanzo (di Central Park)', setting a 'love song' by the nineteenth-century poet and essayist Leigh Hunt in which all but the rhyme words have been left out.
It is getting late now, and the past is growing longer, to be recollected with whatever drained cocktail of fondness and melancholy in 'Three', where Paul Bowles this time sets words by Tennessee Williams. As to the future, perhaps it is already over for the one who is 'sitting here waiting' in 'Then', a song that Marc Blitzstein has rotating through the same grim harmonic progression. Or perhaps it is not.
What a party it was, though, as 'O close the curtain', a last song from Bolcom and Weinstein, reminds us. Then it's encore time: Noël Coward's indefatigable 'Mad dogs and Englishmen' (an encore for Mr Mayers, too). But still a question lingers and, in a ballad from Lionel Bart's Oliver!, finally dares to come forward.
© Paul Griffiths, 2011, all rights reserved.
Diamonds Are Forever (John Barry, Don Black, 1971)
What Good Would The Moon Be? (Kurt Weill, Langston Hughes, 1947)
I Can't Be Talkin' Of Love (John Duke, Esther Mathews, 1950)
O Just Suppose (Friedrich Hollaender, 1928)
Poor Little Rich Girl (Noël Coward, 1925)
Promiscuity (Samuel Barber, Anonymous, tr. Kenneth Jackson, 1953)
Aria (Carl Vine, Patrick White, 1984)
Over The Piano (William Bolcom, Arnold Weinstein, 1971)
Maskulinum – Femininum (Mischa Spoliansky, Marcellus Schiffer, 1921-1924)
It's All A Swindle (Mischa Spoliansky, Marcellus Schiffer, 1931)
Herr Bombardil (Alexander Zemlinsky, Rudolf Alexander Schröder, 1901)
Hitler (Stefan Wolpe, 1930)
I'm A Stranger Here Myself (Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash, 1943)
At The Last Lousy Moments Of Love (William Bolcom, Arnold Weinstein, 1997)
Letter To Freddy (Paul Bowles, Gertrude Stein, 1935)
Solitary Hotel (Samuel Barber, James Joyce, 1969)
Do It Again (George Gershwin, Buddy DeSylva, 1922)
Candy Machine (Jack Gottlieb, 1991)
Toothbrush Time (William Bolcom, Arnold Weinstein, 1985)
Romanzo (Di Central Park) (Charles Ives, Leigh Hunt, 1900)
Three (Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, 1947)
Then (Marc Blitzstein, 1962)
O Close The Curtain (William Bolcom, Arnold Weinstein, 1985)
Mad Dogs And Englishmen (Noël Coward, 1932)
Where Is Love? (Lionel Bart, 1959)
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Music details: Aria
See also: Chamber Music Theatre Music Vocal