Review: Berlin Cabaret, The Rest is Noise

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By Contributor profile

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace
, Updated 4th March 2013

Helen Wallace looks in vain for the spirit of 1920s Berlin…

Members of the Berlin Philharmonic; Dagmar Manzel/Robert Gallinowski

No drinks allowed in the auditorium. A lecturer spouting data in leaden prose. The well-upholstered sound of Philharmoniker players. Titters at the mention of sex. Yes, the spirit of 1920s Berlin was well and truly dead.

The promise of a night of echt-cabaret had drawn a full crowd to the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall. Marketing copy promised decadence and degeneracy. If they’d meant business, this would have been held in the ballroom with tables and booze. But I don’t expect the Berliners would have favoured that. Too noisy, too unpredictable. Their aim was to be thorough - and, seemingly, dull.

The only bright spot was provided by singer-actress Dagmar Manzel, who brought both a touching vulnerability and edgy theatricality to her performances. As she sang Werner Richard Heymann’s haunting Die Kälte you could believe she was hungry, cold and dirty. She glittered again in the slithering ambivalent harmonies of his An den Kanälen and Eisler’s frankly devastating Der Graben (The trenches).

And that, with the occasional poem, would have been enough.

Instead, there were reams of prose and poetry recited in (very poor) English and some in German, with surtitles, endless descriptions, contemporaneous accounts, many of them repeating the same ideas. We had Berlin Philharmonic cellist Götz Teutsch to thank for this heavy-handed text selection and Robert Gallinowski for the excruciating delivery. The whole thing was crying out for an edit (the mumur of discontented disbelief rose to laughter as Gallinowski reeled out another vast list of the numbers of cafes, bookshops and publishing houses, newspapers, magazines and so on and on and on…).

Talk about lost in translation… this is London. Where art has to fight very hard, and very cleverly, for short attention spans. The sixth-form assembly presentation just doesn’t cut the mustard. 

The second half attempted to bring in some relevant art music from the period, and failed. Prokofiev, we were told before his flute sonata breezed in, was one of thousands of Russians for whom Berlin was then the most important cultural centre in Europe. (Er – anyone heard of Paris?) Then came Hindemith’s deathly Trumpet Sonata, which gave trumpeter Tamás Velenczei a chance to show off his tone if not his musicality. Quite how the Viennese Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire fitted in with the theme I’m not sure, but Manzel’s spectral delivery of  ‘Eine blasse Wäscherin’ eclipsed all else.

Where were all the Brecht, Eisler and Weill songs? Where was the grit in the pearl?

Southbank Centre's 'Rest is Noise' festival runs throughout the year. Visit the festival website for more information.

Contributor profile

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace