I’m back. Back in Europe. Back in Berlin.
The Emirates flight from Sydney was more than a bit of a trial (what insane person set up the steward call-buttons to echo through the whole plane every minute or two during the entire ‘night’, killing any hope of sleep?) – I fear have not found ‘my’ airline after all. Disappointing.
Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time helped to dull the twenty-nine hours of comfortless, skimpily-fed and barely (whisky-and-) watered travel from Australia to Dubai and to Germany, a nice cold beer and a hot salami-on-ciabatta bun at ‘Italissimo’ in the very well set-up Frankfurt airport revived me amazingly, and a relaxing last Lufthansa leg into Berlin stopped me confirming a determination to a find a ship ... any ship ... for next time round…
And, then, there was dear Kevin, waiting at Tegel to meet me and take me home and feed me, wine me, and all but tuck me into bed … at 7.30pm.
Wednesday dawned white, chilly and fair and ... no jetlag! Just as well, for when I come to Berlin, when I’m around Kevin, I pick up the reins of my European life and turn myself back into the theatre and music critic that I first became in the 1980s. And on night one, I was ‘on duty’.
We were booked to return to Tipi (am Kanzleramt), the larger of the two tented theatre-cabaret venues on the fringes of the Tiergarten, where, on my last visit to Berlin, I experienced my Best Entertainment Night of 2009, to see Das Konzert by Tim Fischer.
Mr Fischer is famous. In Germany. I had never heard of him. But then, I had never heard of Montmorensy last year, and I fell head over heels for him. So…
It is difficult to walk into another country’s culture and, with no knowledge and little studied background, ‘take on’ an established star. It is very much more difficult when your mastery of the language involved is at best ‘limited’. Especially with an act like Tim Fischer. For Fischer is a chansonnier. A performer of twentieth-century songs. A Kabarettist in the best sense of the word. Where the heart of Montmorensy’s act is in his music, with Tim Fischer it is the song-words and his delivery of them which are supremely all-important…
Das Konzert -- a sort of a ‘best of’ selection from Fischer’s earlier shows -- is performed by five people: Fischer, radiant in black then white, at the centre of affairs, supported by two pianists, and two ‘guests’: the elderly composer (Gerhard Woyda) of two of his songs, and a warmly handsome baritone-ish vocalist (Ralph Samir, unbilled, but evidently ‘known’) who joined him in one love duet. For yes, much of Fischer’s performance is on the gay plane, and he wears a persona to match. Was this going to be the Geschwister Pfister and its Ursli again? As the concert began, I thought (in spite of the fact that Fischer was neatly male-garbed) that it might, but no. There are some very superficial similarities, but, to start with and all importantly, the material here is different. Fischer sings – in a plain, focussed, almost unmusical light baritone, unmarred by vibrato, catapulting his text from behind his teeth with incisive vigour—pieces, ‘male’ and ‘female’, ranging from the years between the wars (Friedrich Holländer, Theo Mackeben) through the sixties, to adaptations of modern, international numbers and to pieces written especially for him. Yes, he does include a couple of numbers made famous by Zarah Leander – who is to a German gay performer what Judy Garland is to an anglophone one, and in whose material he made himself famous as a teenager – but these do not in any way dominate the programme in a way I had thought, given his history, they might. And, thank goodness, he doesn’t frock up. He doesn’t need to. For Fischer is a clever man, a very clever man, and he has no need of a feather boa and stilettos to make his points and effects.
When he walked on to the platform, and launched into his first number – Holländer’s aptly titled ‘Der hysterische Ziege’ (the hysterical goat) – followed immediately by a wild 1960s paean to ‘Ein Neandertaler’ (Günter Neumann), I simply didn’t know what to think. The posters showed this palely too-pretty boy. Here was an explosive little man of what – forty? fifty? (he’s 37) – who looked more like Pinocchio fitted out with the mouth of a smiling shark … Rowan Atkinson with gremlin ears and flailing wrists ... hurling syllables at you like so many mortar bombs, each word like a piece of clear, jagged glass .. I was stunned. I’d always assumed that the impersonation of the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, as made filmicly famous by Joel Grey, was a wild, exaggerated burlesque. I now know that it wasn’t. That style of performance was a genuine part of pre-war German theatre and Kabarett performance, the province of many stars of the period, and Tim Fischer is the 21st century epitomy of that tradition.
But he is not all bombs and shards of glass. And – in a carefully constructed programme -- he quickly lets us know it. Item three is a gentle little love duet (‘Wir zwei sind ein Paar’), sung with (and composed by) his pianist, Rainer Bielfeldt. Suddenly the wild, biting, in-your-face-and-ears Fischer is gone. The Joan Crawford mouth becomes a rosebud, Rowan Atkinson transmutes into the pretty boy of the poster, and you watch stunned. They must be lovers: he couldn’t look at and sing to the other boy like that if they weren’t (NB, they aren’t, not since ages)*. And then the moment of calm is over, and the whirlwind is back… with songs bitter, songs comical, songs which had me stretching my ears and my German to their eager limit, wanting to be a part of what was going on. The whirlwind came to its first peak with an incisive and audience-delighting performance of Holländer’s well-known (even to me) ‘Stroganoff’ ... and then, little by little, Fischer calmed the game. Gentler tones and less aggressive songs ... and, as the first half ended (he had sung fourteen songs with barely a pad of chatter between them) and he moved into his second, equally demanding, set, he stretched his boundaries and offered himself in some items from world outside.
I am probably showing my own background and musical preferences by saying that, for me, his second act opener, Serge Lama’s ‘Je suis malade’ (music: Alice Dona), sung in fine French, was the best number of the night. And his least successful. For it was also the evening’s most demanding number, vocally, forcing the singer to the boundaries of his range and vocal capabilities, not wholly with success. For Fischer is not a ‘singer’ as such. He is not in the business of making beautiful or impressive sounds. That bald, open, sort-of-baritone is not a thing of beauty, it is a rocket carrier, a rocket launcher, made for carrying, supporting, curling round and, most particularly, hurtling forth words, sentences, stories, in a virtuoso way I don’t think I have ever seen excelled.
In pieces as different as precisely comical material of the ‘Stroganoff’ kind, the pointed Georg Kreisler ‘Weg zur Arbeit’, the affectingly half-whispered ‘Komm grosser schwarzer Vogel’ (Ludwig Hirsch) and a version of ‘Are you lonesome tonight’, sung as a sweetly flirtatious duet with his guest star, he was just grand. If I could have got by without ‘Send in the clowns’ (in German), it’s probably because I have heard them sent for far too many times since the original ... and I didn’t care for the piece even then.
As the evening rose to its height, the gentler moments of the saucer-shaped programme again gave place to the attack and forceful manner of the first part of the show, and the enthusiasm of the audience rose commensurately. When Fischer appeared wrapped, for just the one item, in a female coat, to sing a Michael Kunze translation of the Miller/Hirsch hit ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’, made famous in Germany as ‘Ich hab ins Paradies gesehn’, they quite simply exploded. I was a little disappointed. Not with the singer, not with the song (which I initially struggled – sorry, Michael -- wholly to comprehend) but with the audience. Was that why they were here? Was that what they liked? To see this clever artist get into even a smidgin of drag? I hope not … at least, not only. That would be sad. As he had proved over and over during the evening, he doesn’t need props and dresses to tell his tales, all he needs is his expansive talent.
Tim Fischer didn’t close out his evening with extravagance and a frock. The coat went back on its hook, and the grimacing, posturing piranaha back to its shatterable bowl, as he bowed his farewell with a gentle little number, ‘Die Rinnsteinprinzessin’, another composition of the pretty-smile pianist (lyric: Edith Jeske), delivered with precision and delicacy and all the effect that this cleverest of performers has at his command.
It was a fascinating night, and if I was weakening just a little through the last of the heroically end-to-end twenty-seven numbers, I blame it on Emirates Airlines and that bloody awful German of mine, which meant I had to work almost as hard as Fischer from song one onwards, aided (?) only by a nice bottle of Valpolicella.…
Would I go to see him again? Definitely. But I’d do my homework, and spend several sessions with Teach Yourself German first.
Will I go to the tents on the Tiergarten again? Try to stop me! As long as they are not doing Cabaret (the musical) which is scheduled to reappear there shortly, they will, I think, henceforth be my first entertainment stop in Berlin.
And – let’s be odious -- how did I feel about this evening’s entertainment compared with the two shows that I saw in the tents last year. Well, I was much, much more at home with Tim Fischer, his performance and his material, than I was with the Geschwister Pfister presentation. And Montmorensy? ... I’m sorry Tim, but I think I kind of fell in love with Montmorensy, so you (of all people) will understand and not mind if – for the meanwhile -- I only give you my personal silver medal…
But very silver indeed.
*postscript: my German let me down here. The song starts endearingly and then turns into something quite the opposite. So our hero, wearing his most angelic face, ended up singing lyrics which were anything but angelic. Which was the point of the song. Which I, alas, missed.