ALBUM TITLE: Collection: City of Strangers
WORKS: Songs by Sondheim, Prévert, Brodsky, Celan, Eisler, (arr. Fontaine)
PERFORMER: Ute Lemper (chanteuse); Orchestra/Bruno Fontaine
CATALOGUE NO: 444 400-2 DDD
A CD called City of Strangers subtitled ‘Songs by Sondheim, Prévert…’, might give the impression of being predominantly a collection of songs by Stephen Sondheim. But no. Only four of the fourteen tracks are attributable to him (and of those, one is part of a medley). But Sondheim fans should not be deterred for Lemper’s treatment of these few classics – three from Company, one from Follies – is powerfully original.
Her version of ‘Losing My Mind’ starts mezza voce, building gradually to a climax of such abandon that it’s plain that this is a song about being, not going, mad and all the more powerful for it. Barbara Cook’s elegiacally sweet-suburban and Liza Minelli’s disco-frenetic versions – though both outstanding in their way – pale by comparison. Augmented by Bruno Fontaine’s searing arrangement of supper-club piano and sawing strings, Lemper’s interpretation of what has become a standard is a harrowing experience.
Her version of ‘Being Alive’, however, is much more straightforwardly epic, and would not sound out of place on Broadway. And ‘Another Hundred People’, sandwiched between ‘La belle saison’ and ‘Chasse à l’enfant’, is transformed into a shattering discourse on urban alienation. Only ‘Ladies who lunch’ seems overblown, grotesque even, in its attempt to satirise its subject.
The rest of the disc covers more familiar Lemper territory – words and music by Jacques Prévert, Joseph Brodsky, Paul Celan and others – mostly in the classic cabaret tradition but the collection as a whole works brilliantly and proves just what a challenging and accomplished musician, impressive linguist and astonishing actress Lemper is. Anything but easy listening.