A Memorable Evening with Ute Lemper

Ute Lemper (singer), Vana Gierig (piano), Victor Villena (bandoneon), Barbican Hall, London 17.12.2014 (CC)

A few years ago my colleague Jim Pritchard reported on Ute Lemper at the Barbican. Many of Jim’s comments could easily be applied to the present recital, and I remain unsure that that is a good thing. The same ploy of flirting outrageously with audience members was there, on this instance a certain “Steve”, an older gentleman in the centre front row who was recalled back after only kissing one of Lemper’s cheeks and who was gifted with an invitation to go visit Lemper in the interval. We’ll never know if he did or not … and just like last time, reportedly, we the audience got a chance to whistle along at one point.

In fact reading the report of the 2009 concert made me think it might well have been nearly the same programme. We, too, got the songs we had come to expect (from Cabaret and Weill/Brecht) and a song-cycle in Yiddish. This is not to demean the excellence of delivery, the sheer slickness of the whole experience. Everything was as fresh as if she had discovered the songs yesterday. Nor should one forget the inclusion this time of some of Lemper’s own music in the Neruda songs which we heard in a nod to her 2014 album, Forever, released on the Steinway & Sons label. It’s nice to see a link to Michael Cookson’s Musicweb International review of Forever on Lemper’s website, too.

Lemper’s skills as a narrator are at the core of her art, and not just in how she tells a story through the medium of song. Her little asides, her histories – of the bandoneon, on this occasion – are a vital, fresh part of the show.  But in musical terms, her skill with narrative is peerless: perhaps that is why Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam, which kicked of the second part, was one of the stand-out numbers, impeccably atmospheric; the song we English know as Autumn Leaves had a similar rightness.  Lemper’s multilingual talents enable each song to sound perfectly idiomatic: the first half was dominated by the German repertoire, the second by the French (with an “aside” into Lemper’s own settings of Neruda). But the highlight had to be Morität von Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife), confirming Lemper as directly in line from the likes of Lenya, Piaf and Dietrich.

Lemper’s vocal range is huge, her ability to vary tone seemingly endless – she also did a highly creditable impression of a muted trumpet at one point. Her encore couldn’t have been better chosen: Non, je ne regret rein. A perfect leave-taking.

Pianist Vana Gierig provided characterful, exemplary support throughout. Expert bandoneon player Victor Villena replaced Hector Castor from the previous line-up, but was extraordinary, his instrument lending a particular poignancy to the bass ensemble sound.

Lemper’s new project 9 Secrets, a collaboration with Paolo Coelho based on the latter’s book manuscripts found in Accra, promises well (see www.utelemper.com). It will be premiered in Germany in May 2015. Lemper continues to seek out and find fertile ground. Long may she continue!

`Colin Clarke

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