Saturday 16 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Ute Lemper at the Usher Hall, or, In the Presence of Greatness

There are some live performance occasions when critical comment almost becomes superfluous and you simply have to acknowledge that you were privileged to be present while greatness was at work – such was the case with Ute Lemper in last night's festival concert.

In advance of this performance I had high hopes. I'm a big fan of Weimer era cabaret, and indeed cabaret as an art form more broadly. One of the best things about Mills's period as Festival Director has been a willingness to bring more cabaret and musical theatre material under the International Festival umbrella with highlights including his very first opening concert of Bernstein's Candide, and Camille O'Sullivan's cabaret inflected performance of Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece. However, there were dangers about this particular collaboration. Classical orchestras trying to do cabaret inflected work can come a cropper (as with the concert performance of Weill's Mahagony some years back at the Festival). The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conductor Lawrence Foster's work was not without blemish, but so outstanding was Ute Lemper that I forgave other infelicities.

Lemper brings the most extraordinary presence to the work of Weill, Eisler and Piaf era songwriters – I'm less familiar with the latter period. Her vocal manner is very hard to describe. She turned the Hall into an intimate cabaret bar in numbers like Lili Marlene, and to a full broadway stage with strident but pin-point controlled power in numbers like Cabaret. Within the same number she can move from soft sprechgesang to full blast. As a vocalist she possesses a character, a richness that simply grips attention, perhaps nowhere more so than in Eisler's searing Der Graben. Lemper also did a perfect job of introducing each of her numbers – giving just enough context for those whose German or French was insufficient for full comprehension, but also dropping in verses in English on many occasions.

So commanding was Lemper's performance that it made up, as already suggested, for one or two infelicities. I suspect that not enough time had been spent on getting the miking balance right both between soloist and orchestra and to allow key instrumental soloists to come through. The solo accordian needed to be louder and on a number of occasions (this was less of an issue after the interval) Lemper, at least in the Upper Circle, was in danger of being swamped by the orchestra. Presence and power just transcended the problem.

The other odd decision was the choice of two fairly lengthy orchestral pieces to open each half – Weill's Kleine Dreigroschenmusik and Stravinsky's Scenes de ballet. I suspect there were at least some audience members who don't often hear an orchestra in action and, under Lawrence Foster's direction, neither work was the best advertisment. The Dreigroschenmusik is a little like Strauss's Rosenkavalier orchestral medleys, you gradually begin to miss the singing. Foster's interpretation of the Scenes de ballet was pedestrian. The concert would have been a perfectly acceptable length with two shorter orchestral openers, and I couldn't help feeling that it would have benefitted from excerpting the Weill, and finding more of a firecracker opener for Part Two (something from Gershwin's pen would have fitted well, and been a better advertisment for potential new audiences to classical performances). Overall, while I can see why the decision to pair Lemper with the SCO was made, and it was a worthwhile experiment, I couldn't quite avoid the feeling that a big band size ensemble would have been more effective.

But ultimately this was one of those evenings where everything pales before the single unquestionable genius among the performers. Just to hear Ute Lemper live in this repertoire was a wonder. Hopefully Fergus Linehan will return to this repertoire in upcoming Festivals.

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