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
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
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