Collection: Lotte Lenya

LABELS: Bear Family Records
WORKS: Recordings 1929-75: includes stage works by Weill
PERFORMER: songs; concert appearances; German poetry readings, etc
CATALOGUE NO: BCD 16 019 KL ADD mono/stereo


No artist promoted Kurt Weill’s music more devotedly than his wife Lotte Lenya. Her unique vocal style – a mixture of singing, speaking and even hectoring – provided the interpretative model for subsequent generations of performers. Indeed, for many the sound of her voice is as synonymous with Weill as that of Peter Pears with Britten.

It’s therefore entirely fitting that the centenary of her birth last year should have prompted this lavish compilation which offers not only a comprehensive survey of all her commercial recordings, but also includes much previously unavailable material, together with an illustrated 250-page book.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the collection is the opportunity it affords to compare her approach to a particular song over a period of many years. No doubt, those who are familiar with her husky mid-Fifties Columbia rendition of ‘Surabaya Jonny’ will be somewhat surprised at the rather different sound of her first recording made in 1929.

Not only is the pitch of the original version much higher, but the voice has a kind of girlishness that is entirely missing from any postwar interpretations. This discovery makes it all the more disappointing to note that no impresario had the foresight to persuade Lenya to record Weill’s magnum opus The Seven Deadly Sins during the early Thirties.

Although the 1956 recording, long available on Sony, is regarded as definitive in many circles, the lower transposition and the unnatural spotlighting of the voice in relation to the orchestra remain troubling. Inevitably the recording quality is variable.

Some of the very early tracks from the late Twenties sound very murky, as does the barely audible excerpt from Marc Blitzstein’s musical I’ve Got the Tune recorded in 1937, only two years after Weill and Lenya had emigrated to the United States.

But it’s good to hear Lenya tackle different repertoire, including songs by other Brecht collaborators, Dessau and Eisler, and excerpts from Cabaret; the track which homes in on rehearsals with Louis Armstrong for ‘Mack the Knife’ is simply priceless.


Lenya aficionados will certainly want this collection, warts and all, but the inescapable repetition of material over several CDs is likely to be off-putting for those who are less committed.