> Cabaret Songs Malena Ernman [CH]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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BOLCOM William (b. 1938)

Cabaret Songs: Over the piano, Fur (Murray the Furrier), He tipped the waiter, Waitin, Song of Black Max, Amor, Places to live, Toothbrush time, Surprise! The Actor, Oh Close the Curtain, George
WEILL Kurt (1900-1950)

Nanna’s Lied, Youkali, Complainte de la Seine, Je ne t’aime pas

HOLLÄNDER Friedrich (1896-1976)

Lass mich einmal deine Carmen sein, Nimm dich in acht vor blonden Frau’n, Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt, Die Kleptomanin

BRITTEN Benjamin (1913-1976)

Carbaret Songs: Tell me the truth about love, Funeral Blues, Johnny, Calypso
Malena Ernman (mezzo-soprano), Bengt-Åke Lundin (pianoforte)
Recorded October/November 2000, Danderyds Gymnasium, Sweden
BIS CD-1154 [75’ 20"]

What is a mezzo-soprano? (4)

This series of reviews has so far dealt with Magdalena Kozena, the lovely young Czech singer who I suspect will soon be billed as a straight soprano, the "mezzo-contralto" Rebecca de Pont Davies and the "true" mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter singing Chaminade. One point to emerge is that mezzos, anxious to carve out a space for themselves alongside their soprano colleagues, are inclined to be more adventurous over repertoire than any other singers. Indeed, when the mezzo of the moment, Cecilia Bartoli, shows sufficient love for music to take a lot of time and trouble over a disc of rare Gluck (not an "Orfeo" or an "Alceste" in sight) and has proved able to take her public with her, it is the mezzo who sticks to standard fare who risks not finding her particular niche. All this by way of an introduction to the present record in which a mezzo launches herself into the world of cabaret.

Interestingly enough, three of the Bolcom songs turned up not so long ago in the baritone Nathan Gunn’s début album "American Anthem" (EMI CDZ 5 73160 2), which I recommended very highly. The comparisons could not be more illuminating. Gunn gives us the "straight", or "classic" approach: an even, well-produced voice, clear on the words, interpretation and musical line kept in balance. It is the sort of approach you would expect from someone who has been singing lieder and mélodies all evening and now wants to let his hair down for the last fifteen minutes of the recital. And it is very fine.

Malena Ernman gives us what I can only describe as the "Whoopee!" approach. She gives us every trick of the cabaret trade. Hear her nudge the melodic line of "Over the piano", how her higher notes are tantalisingly pure and schoolgirlish one moment, vibratoed the next so she always keeps you guessing, how she can sing one phrase lyrically and suddenly dig down into her chest voice for the next one. Above all, how she interprets every word, semi-spoken, semi-whispered, now sung out, now belted, in classic cabaret-seducer style. She throws caution to the winds compared with Gunn in Murray the Furrier, with a considerably faster tempo, and makes a hell-raising thing of it. While she is slower and slinkier in "Black Max", letting us savour every phrase. If there is a price to be paid for this approach it is that the sheer concentration she requires of her listeners – you’ve got to hang on to every word – can become wearing, so you begin to wish you could sit back and just take in the general line. At which point, enter Nathan Gunn. But on the whole I feel she dares far more than he does, and achieves far more. For one thing, the extra-musical effects in these Bolcom songs – the coughing in Murray the Furrier, the blowsy-barmaid imitation "Everybody out the door" in "Over the piano" and the different voices at "There was knitting-needle music", followed by actual spoken lines, in "Black Max", sound more natural in the context of this style.

The other price to be paid could be vocal. She demands a lot of her voice - in the Britten she belts her way down to a bottom F and also essays a small but sweet and well-held top D – and I hope she isn’t asking too much of it. The high As in the last Weill song are free and easy, but rather heavy in vibrato and when she puts pressure on her medium-high range (around F) at the end of Britten’s "Funeral Blues" it gets squally. But with all the tricks she plays on us, I wouldn’t rule out that she does this deliberately as an effect. Certainly her voice seems an attractive one where she sings relatively straight, as in the Holländer pieces which are a mite closer to the world of the lied. So I will stay judgement until I have heard her in other repertoire, lieder or opera (the notes mention that she has given performances of Voix humaine and Il Barbiere di Siviglia).

What I am prepared to do is to stick my neck out and say that, at least in this repertoire, she seems to me an absolutely super singer and if the repertoire appeals, and maybe even if it doesn’t, you should go out and get this. The Bolcom songs will probably be viewed one day as twentieth-century classics and the Weill have all his timeless bitter-sweet qualities. The Britten pieces sound as if they might not have worked as cabaret, but they make a fine group for a concert. (By the way, the text as printed in the booklet is sometimes at variance with what is sung, particularly in "Johnny"). Only the Holländer songs seem to me lesser fare, closer to operetta than cabaret. "Ich bin von Kopf" is the song from the "Blue Angel" and I put the ball into the readers’ court: I daresay most people can bring to mind the image of the stool and the garters, but can you remember the actual music Marlene Dietrich sang? Well, never mind, it’s sung very nicely here.

The pianist is so good I hardly noticed him (I intend this as a compliment). At first the recording seemed to have the voice a little backward compared with the piano, but I came to appreciate it as a true concert hall balance. The excellent notes are in English, Swedish, German and French and the texts are in the original languages with an English translation where needed.

Christopher Howell


What is a mezzosoprano? part (1), (2), (3), (4) Chris Howell

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