What is it about Vienna? Of the numerous parallel universes coexisting in New York, one of the most seductive is the ever re-emerging fragments of the world of pre-Anschluss Vienna. This legendary period and place has such a hold on the imagination that when even just two descendants of Viennese immigrants show up in a room, one can almost see bits of this world magically attempt to reconstruct it. Unlike America’s culture, which may be seen as ascetic and naive by comparison, Viennese culture prides itself as the ne plus ultra of sophistication, redolent with recognition of the full range of sensual appetites, social privileges and human failings. Almost as all-encompassing as Jewish tradition, when the two cultures are combined, their tidal pull becomes the equivalent of a rip tide.
The Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie New York is dedicated to this Brigadoon principle of bringing old Vienna back to life, and it has now even started an occasional Thursday night cabaret of period music. Series curator Limor Tomer claims that the evening of authentic Viennese dinner followed by song performed by select musicians in this intimate room is the most romantic date in town — a designation that fairly begged to be tested.
Entering the elegant beaux-arts mansion on East 86th Street, my date and I were directed to the intimate, wood-paneled ground-floor cafe with high ceilings, windows overlooking Fifth Avenue, period lighting fixtures by Josef Hoffman and furniture by Adolf Loos. It is a welcoming place, but not overly so, and something about the atmosphere invites lively conversation, whether intellectual, political or otherwise. The room seats only 60 people, and all of the marble-top tables were soon filled with patrons of all ages and the buzz of engaged discussion. We were presented with two richly and tightly scripted choices of appetizer, entree and dessert. Under the imaginative direction of chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, the famous opulence of Viennese cuisine shows here even in the handling of cabbage — for example, I chose the wild striped bass served on a bed of exquisitely delicate sauerkraut and piquantly counterbalanced with earthy black truffle sauce. My companion chose to go with the gamy choice, roasted venison chop perfectly prepared and served with robustly dark braised red cabbage. Vienna is of course almost synonymous with sinfully rich dessert, and the Cafe Sabarsky flourless chocolate feuilletté is so cavernously, chocolaty deep and light at the same time, it deserves its own complement of song. So after dessert, when beautifully presented espresso and the final plate of various dainty Viennese cookies arrived, life felt quite fine, thank you. At this point, all service and conversation stopped, and attention was drawn to the Bösendorfer piano.
The diva of the day was the brilliantly versatile Angelina Réaux, who took one look around the room and knew she had the delightedly satiated audience in her hand even before she started. Her Weimar-period program in German and English was entitled, with good reason, “Songs and Deadly Sins.”
Many songs from this time speak of social injustices or decadence. An alarming number almost romanticize the abuse of women. In this cultural context, it seems the deadliest sins — artistically speaking — were naivete and the inability to recognize hypocrisy. It is no accident that the Nazis characterized this sophistication as unwholesomeness and used it as a cudgel to promote their cleansing antidotal agenda for German women, “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church).
Most remarkably, many of these sophisticated songs still elicit the same shock of recognition today as they did way back then. For example, “Zu Amsterdam” (Béla Reinitz/Klabund) charts the path to degradation of a poor girl naive and unlucky enough to love the wrong man, and follows her descent step by step as she winds up a streetwalker. Some songs were playfully obscene — including one about a woman who likes to get on the train and pull the “brake” — while others were simply debauched, like the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill “Alabama Song.” (“Show me the way to the next whiskey bar. Oh don’t ask why…”)
Sure enough, the romantic atmosphere had the young couple in the booth in front of us snuggling as Réaux sang. But then the diva switched gears and delivered a devastatingly pathological rendition of the Brecht/Weill “Surabaya Johnny,” an anthem of low self-esteem. In it, a woman directly addresses her lover. She doesn’t care how badly he abuses her, if only he will come back and not leave her again, because, as she says, “I love you so…” No one in the room breathed, because it seemed all too real. The couple in front of us stopped snuggling and sat bolt upright, the woman occasionally daring a quick sidelong glance at her boyfriend to see his reaction.
The homicidal violence of “Pirate Jenny” from Brecht and Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera” also was chilling in this context: A hotel chambermaid who dreams of being the commander of a troop of pirates who will round up in front of her all the people for whom she has been working and ask what she wants done with them, i.e. the audience. She responds, “Kill them all!”
Other numbers were pathological but comic, like the Mischa Spoliansky song “Ich bin ein Vamp” translated by Jeremy Lawrence — “I bite my men and suck them dry and then bake them in a pie” — studded with period jokes about Hitler’s first mustache and Wallace Simpson, the Nazi-sympathizing American divorcee for whom Edward VIII abdicated the English throne.
Whether Reaux chose to open up the full blossom of her operatic voice or suppress that beauty for conversationally dusky speech-song or other qualities, she eloquently dramatized her ideas of the meaning and purpose of the songs, in both languages. Diffident and secure, pianist Scott Dunn supported her every whim. The audience applauded heartily, and all too soon the cabaret was over. The seductive Brigadoon illusion vanished and we were back in New York in the 21st century.
March 18, 25 and April 1 noted singer KT Sullivan will appear. April 8 and 15 will be a rare chance to hear the German singer Max Raabe (whose popularity in his country Tomer compares to Barbra Streisand’s in America) in such an intimate setting. Angelina Réaux will return to Café Sabarsky in the fall.
Raphael Mostel is a composer based in New York. His most recent CD is “The Travels of Babar” (Mostel.com), based on the classic book by Jean de Brunhoff.