Max Raabe & Palast Orchester


Many variety shows promise Weimar-inspired cabaret entertainment, but deliver little more than a Liza Minelli wannabe prancing around a chair. How exhilarating, then, to see and hear a genuine invocation of vintage German ballroom music with a repertoire both accurate and fresh. Making their UK debut, Max Raabe & Palast Orchester demonstrated why they are the undisputed champions of Weimar.

The 12-piece band flaunts nimble, vivid arrangements for hits like Weill’s Alabama Song and less known gems like Kleines Fräulein, Einen Augenblick. As a reminder that pre-war Germany was not an island, but a bustling arts scene sizzling with musical influences from international ballrooms, the Orchester plays tango, rumba (with a violin-heavy rendition of Amapola) and many American jazz standards soon to become verboten: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes gets a low-fi treatment unburdened by the operatic sentimentality of its most famous recordings, while Boulanger’s My Prayer comes alive in the call-and-response exchanges between Raabe and violinist Cecilia Crisafulli.

In its longer, more sophisticated numbers, Raabe’s ensemble deploys absorbing cinematic textures. Stolz and Rebner’s Salome becomes hypnotic with gongs and surreptitious brass. Avalon, in turn, gains new life with Rainer Fox’s syncopated baritone sax solo, echoing Sam Butera. Küssen Kann Man Nicht Alleine, the original title track of the Orchester’s latest album, oozes a moody, atmospheric elegance.

The spectacle depends on the band’s stage presence and theatrical antics, providing jocular commentary on the songs. Their take on German waltz Dort Tanzt Lulu is a celebrated highlight where the musicians forego their instruments to clown around with bells. By contrast, bandleader Raabe keeps an unflinching poise throughout: entranced by his deadpan timing, spectators chuckle at the slightest sneer.

Though renowned for its refined presentation, the Palast Orchester brings back the jazz irreverence that made the Weimar period an enduring ideal of bohemian wantonness. Despite their impressive musicianship, you can’t take too seriously musicians performing nonsense pearls like Hans Albers’s Mein Gorilla Hat ’ne Villa im Zoo. Though the joke may be stretched too thin with the inclusion of Britney Spears or Tom Jones’s Sex Bomb, their joviality exemplifies the spirit of reckless enjoyment that fuels live cabaret.

With lively tunes and unassuming humour, Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester are teaching the world how to have fun in black tie. It’s high time someone reminded us how to do it.

Max Raabe & Palast Orchester. Cadogan Hall, London. 13 December, 19:00. £15-25. 

Read Weimar Vibe, ER’s feature on Max Raabe & Palast Orchester.