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MY LOVE Malena Ernman (mezzo-soprano)
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)

Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Una voce poco fa
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)

Carmen: L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habanera), Près des remparts de Séville (Seguidilla)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Vocalise-étude en forme de Habanera
Michel LEGRAND (b. 1932)

The summer knows
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Le Nozze di Figaro: Non sò più cosa son, cosa faccio, Voi che sapete, Abendempfindung an Laura
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Die Sterne, D.939, Im Frühling, D.882, Heidenröslein, D.257, Litanei, D.343
Duke ELLINGTON (1899-1974)

Heaven*, Come Sunday*, Almighty God, My Love
Nils LINDBERG (b.1933)

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Bo NILSSON (b.1937)

Vals i mejram, Röda höst, Det finns ju faktiskt telefon*
Malena Ernman (mezzo-soprano), Mats Bergström (guitar), with *Magnus Lindgren (clarinet/flute) and Hans Backenroth (double bass)
All works arranged by Mats Bergström, the first two Bo Nilsson pieces after arrangements by Stefan Nilsson
Recorded April and June 2002 at Länna Church, Sweden
BIS-NL-CD-5020 [67:45]

If you are wondering what might be the point of buying versions of arias by Rossini, Bizet and Mozart accompanied on the guitar when you can find plenty with the original orchestral scoring, then the fact that Malena Ernman is singing them should be reason enough.

At a time when we are told the classical product will not sell, a remarkable amount of activity is nevertheless going on at the sidelines, and imaginative programme planning is half the battle. Malena Ernman has already shown in her first two records – Cabaret Songs (BIS-CD-1154) and Songs in Season (NYTORP6), both reviewed by me on the site – that she is ready to challenge traditional concepts of programming. Here she takes the process a stage further. She is not, I take it, out to give "definitive" performances of famous operatic arias, since she obviously knows that for that she would need an orchestra. What she, with her guitarist and any others responsible for overall planning, has created is a total listening experience in which she moves around a range of material with an ease which would defeat most classically (or cabaret) based artists.

Rosina and Carmen are two roles which she has sung on the operatic stage with notable success but, in line with the total experience she is out to give us she has, or so I believe, restudied these arias specifically for a guitar-accompanied performance. So "Una voce poco fa" opens colloquially, unusually intimate in its expression, yet later managing to express a world of intrigue in that little word "ma" ("but") that I’ve heard surpassed only by Callas. And lucky the mezzo (or soprano for that matter) who can insert a cadenza that rises effortlessly to a high E natural.

The Carmen excerpts are similarly slinky and catlike, and when she brings out the full power of her voice in the last verse of "Près des remparts" the effect is sizzling. Actually, Bizet wanted this song to be piano and pianissimo almost throughout, then suddenly forte in the last verse, but how often do we hear that respected?

The Ravel Habanera has been tried on a range of instruments and voices, but never more effectively than here. What Legrand’s "The Summer Knows" is doing at this point of the programme only Malena Ernman knows, but she makes such a show-stopper of it that all disbelief is suspended. Here she adopts the dulcet tones of a Whitney Houston-style cabaret singer, with tremulous vibratos on long high notes which she avoids in the classical pieces, her handling of the American vowel-sounds perfectly in style. This is not just crossover, which implies someone doing something they are not really suited to, for anyone who heard her sing just this would never suppose she was other than a pop/rock singer pure and simple.

Back to Mozart, with Cherubino’s two arias intimately but also vividly expressed. Full marks for varying the vocal line at the end of "Voi che sapete", a perfectly acceptable practice in Mozart (as Alfred Brendel has shown us in the piano concertos) but this is the first time I’ve ever heard it done in this piece. "Abendempfindung" shows that Ernman can spin a long, pure legato line when required.

Schubert’s songs were sometimes sung to guitar accompaniment in his own times – contemporary guitar arrangements of some of them exist. Oddly enough, though, I missed the piano’s sonority more than I did that of the orchestra in the operatic pieces. Never mind, this is superior lieder singing, as attentive to line as to the words, not least in "Litanei" which is hard to bring off with its long phrases, and Ernman’s tempo is courageously slow.

The Duke Ellington pieces give further evidence of Ernman’s prowess in the field of cabaret, but I am not convinced that Lindberg’s Shakespeare setting should be sung in the same way. I should be interested to hear how a more classically inclined British singer might handle it. No doubts about the three Swedish pieces that conclude the programme. Bo Nilsson is mostly known for his fairly modernist tendencies but here he offers an attractive, folksy style against a lightly strummed accompaniment, allowing Ernman to demonstrate that she can pose as a folk singer just as well as a cabaret artist, lieder singer and operatic star.

Having reviewed all three of Malena Ernman’s discs so far I really feel now that she is second to none among today’s mezzos, and the originality of her programme planning ensures that each disc is a special event, not just a collection of favourite pieces.

Christopher Howell

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