Ute Lemper: "Paris Days, Berlin Nights"
Songs by Maitrier, Emer, Weill, Eisler, Piazzolla, Bogolovsky, Alberstein, and Brel. The Vogler Quartet with Stefan Malzew. Texts and translations. Steinway & Sons 30009
Acknowledged doyenne of international cabaret, German chanteuse Ute Lemper is now in the fourth decade of her career. A tall, striking woman with a highly idiosyncratic sound, she is perhaps best experienced live in one of her frequent nightclub, theater and concert performances. Although she has made many recordings, hers is a package that benefits from complete presentation.
That is borne out in her new CD, Paris Days, Berlin Nights, which she recently promoted on a U.S. concert tour. This wide-ranging selection includes Piaf and Brel songs in French, Weill and Eisner songs in German, Piazzolla tangos in Spanish (and a Brazilian slum dialect), plus numbers in English, Russian and even Yiddish. For must of it, Lemper's hyper-dramatic default mode often seems at odds with the pensive, haunting arrangements of Stefan Malzew, who accompanies her on piano, accordion and clarinet along with The Vogler Quartet. These instrumental backgrounds cannot help calling attention to themselves simply because they are so strikingly good — and so apt and expressive. The high-decibel caterwaulting Lemper often indulges in tends to get in their way.
Perhaps, as is often the case with veteran performers, the tics and trademarks that originally made Lemper distinctive have now calcified into exaggeration. That seems evident in her pronunciation of the letter s, which now emerges with a sibilance like that of the latter-day Liza Minnelli. And her timbre — a strong, tough contralto that is gripping enough on its own — now sounds excessively embellished with whoops, growls and screeches. Much of this is how contemporary audiences assume Weimar cabaret numbers were sung. While this may be true to a certain extent, the few extant recordings by cabaret stars of those years — Trude Hesterberg, Margo Lion, the young Lotta Lenya — paint a very different picture.
Lemper's spitting, howling approach works well in "Surabaya Johnny, " especially as she delivers its frenzied parlando conclusion. Hanns Eisler and Kurt Tucholsky's "Der Graben," a mournful cry from the trenches of World War I, is effectively bathed by Lemper in chilly, sepulchral tones rising to a climax that is a desperate plea for peace. But it all becomes too much when she applies hectoring cries and strident falsetto to two lesser-known Brecht–Eisler songs, "Über den Selbstmord" and "Die Ballade vom Wasserad." The same goes for two Piaf numbers, "L'Accordéoniste" and "Elle fréquentait la rue Pigalle," which seem trampled to parody under wildly distorted vowels and exaggerated portamento. In three Piazzolla songs — one, "Oblivion," in English — Lemper's vocal inflections are so overdrawn that she brings to mind a Carol Channing impersonator.
Where it all comes together is in two Yiddish songs composed by contemporary Polish singer/songwriter Chava Alberstein. Preceded by spoken, softly underscored summaries in English, these bring out the subtler, more plaintive aspects of Lemper's talent, and prove a relief after all the emotionally italicized material that has come before. This is a performer who still has much to offer — if she can ever tone down her mannerisms.
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