Recording of the Week Berlin Comedian Harmonists
I’ve been enjoying a tribute-band with a difference this week, and they’ve put a smile on even the most sceptical faces at Presto: April certainly isn’t the cruellest month when we have the Berlin Comedian Harmonists to remind us that ‘Die Lenz ist da!’ (‘Spring Is Here!’) This close-harmony male quintet (three tenors, baritone, bass) pays affectionate, idiomatic homage to their namesake group who took pre-Second World War Europe and America by storm with their barbershop-style arrangements of light classics, original comic songs and vocal virtuosity.
The Comedian Harmonists’ sound was at once very much of its time and a real one-off, fusing elements of 1930s Berlin cabaret, cod-Viennese schmaltz and elements of the Bierkeller and great German outdoors; their repertoire encompassed novel takes on works like Dvořák's Humoresque and Brahms’s Lullaby, bittersweet waltzes drawn from operetta and near-the-knuckle romps such as ‘Mein kleine grüner Kaktus’ and ‘Wochenend und Sonnenschein’ (a rather more risqué version of ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’).
The story of the original Comedian Harmonists is shot through with a darkness that is entirely at odds with the sunny joviality of their music: formed in 1927 by a ‘resting’ German actor named Harry Fromermann (who took the ‘tenor buffo’ or comic patter part) the group quickly gained immense popularity throughout Europe and in the US, appearing in over 20 films.
However, the rise of the Nazi Party curtailed their career in the early 1930s: three of the singers were Jewish, the pianist had married a Jewish woman and much of their repertoire was by Jewish composers. The Harmonists gave their final performance in Germany in 1934 and eventually split into two groups; the three Jewish members set off to find work together in America but encountered increasing anti-German prejudice, whilst the other three remained in Germany but were so stifled by the authorities’ restrictions on their artistic identity and repertoire that they too fizzled out comparatively quickly.
All six members survived the War but never reformed; their music largely fell into obscurity but gained some niche popularity from the 1970s. In 1997, when one of the original members was still alive, the German director Joseph Vilsmaier made a film about the group. Its release was largely limited to mainland Europe (though the then-US-president Bill Clinton named it one of his films of the year!); however, its appeal was sufficient that the follow-up musical Veronika, Der Lenz ist Da! opened later that year in Berlin, starring the actors from the film. Though they’d mimed to original recordings on-screen, they began performing live for the show and since then the group have enjoyed a flourishing international career (with a few changes in line-up along the way).
Their latest disc ‘Die Liebe kommt’ features all the greatest hits of the original Harmonists, and is guaranteed to perk up even the dreariest Monday morning. The new group have the idiom off to a T, with crystal-clear diction, just the right balance of wit and sentiment and, most of all, the ability to move in and out of the group texture absolutely seamlessly: the blend in the ‘choral’ sections is on a par with that of the King’s Singers, but all the voices are highly characterful and some of the solo work is almost laughably virtuosic, with high-speed patter-singing to rival Gilbert & Sullivan at their most fiendish! One colleague’s initial reaction was that it sounded like ‘Barbershop crossed with Ute Lemper and yodelling, with a dash of George Formby thrown in for good measure’ – and if that doesn’t hook you in, then frankly I don’t know what will!
Berlin Comedian Harmonists
Available Format: CD