Serious Cabaret – but with a Light Touch

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Serious Cabaret – Leaving Berlin: Mary Carewe & Players of the Manchester Camerat [Adi Brett (violin), Hannah Roberts (cello), Sarah Whewell (flute), Fiona Cross (clarinet), Simon Parkin (piano)], Great Hall, Lancaster University, Lancashire, 14.11.2013 (MC)


Entitled ‘Serious Cabaret – Leaving Berlin’ the theme of this twenty-two song concert sung by Mary Carewe accompanied by an excellent quintet of players from the Manchester Camerata was primarily music of the Berlin cabaret scene from 1900 through the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s Chancellorship in 1933. For extra variety in the second half three George Gershwin songs and four others written in America by the exiled Kurt Weill were also included.

When an artist such as Mary Carewe presents a programme of Cabaret songs with a Berlin theme comparisons are bound to be made with German born chanteuse Ute Lemper. I reported last year on Ute Lemper’s Manchester concert and thought she was amazing displaying her stunning, low smoky voice in a series of steamy cabaret songs. The enthusiastic songstress Mary Carewe was splendid too but very different in approach presenting herself with a bubbly, upbeat character with her light soprano voice definitely more comfortable in her mid-high registers. Carewe’s often humorous introductions to each of the songs certainly added interest to the evening’s entertainment and had the additional advantage of forging a bond with the audience.

The programme of cabaret songs, were virtually all by writers who were Jewish or of Jewish origin, Weill/Lerner, Eisler, Spoliansky/Schiffer, Zemlinsky, Hollaender, Schoenberg/Salus, Waxman/Colpet, Wolpe, Gershwin /Gershwin and Kander/Ebb. Containing cutting political satire and irreverent sexual decadence the lyrics would certainly have been dangerously at odds with the burgeoning influence of the Nazi ideology in Germany. Taking us up to the end of the concert three songs from the pen of George Gershwin reflected a contrasting Broadway world of endearing romantic fantasy far from the excesses of Berlin’s cabaret scene.

All the songs were immensely enjoyable with my particular favourites headed by the tender qualities of the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash song ‘Speak Low’ from the 1943 Broadway music ‘One Touch of Venus’ accompanied by violin, cello, clarinet and piano. Making a real impression was the song ‘By Strauss’ by George and Ira Gershwin used in the 1936 revue ‘The Show is On’ and Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 musical film ‘An American in Paris’. Here Carewe, accompanied by all five players, concluded on a wonderfully sustained high note.  I loved Carewe’s compelling rendition, accompanied by flute and cello, of Friedrich Hollaender’s ‘Chuck Out the Men’ the decadent feminist anthem written in 1926 for Berlin based lesbian performer Claire Waldoff. Throughout this demanding concert I was struck by Carewe’s capacity to live the song rather than merely sing the words together with the even rarer ability of giving the impression that she is singing directly to you. All these qualities were seen to great effect in her animated performance of Hollaender’s 1931 song ‘Sex Appeal’ with clarinet and piano.

To add variety to the programme three of the Manchester Camerata players played two instrumental duos. First came a fascinating single movement piece from Rudi Stephan entitled Grotesque for violin and piano played by Adi Brett on violin and pianist Simon Parkin. Later cellist Hannah Roberts and Simon Parkin performed the captivating movement Andante espressivo of the Cello Sonata by Kurt Weill. Unfortunately Parkin’s heavily percussive piano playing did rather swamp the string players which in turn slightly reduced the effectiveness of the score especially the glorious sounding cello.

A major drawback I had to contend with for most of the evening was Carewe’s voice not being amplified sufficiently forward in the balance causing me to strain to satisfactorily hear the words. The arrangements in the first half had been prepared by Simon Parkin, the pianist on the night and mainly in the second half by Philip Mayers, Carewe’s long time accompanist and Berlin based collaborator. I would have liked the arrangements to have followed the vocal more to enhance the marvellous melodies contained in these songs.

Mary Carewe is a splendid singer and entertainer and the five Manchester Camerata players provided the finest possible support. If the audience enjoyed hearing Mary Carewe in ‘Serious Cabaret – Leaving Berlin’ in a large concert hall I can’t help thinking just how stunning she would have been in a smaller, more intimate setting.

Michael Cookson

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