`Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill, Volumes 1 and 2' released in 1988 and 1993, plus the third album of Weill's two most important song cycles in German, `The Seven Deadly Sins' (`Die sieben Todsunden') and `Mahagonny Songspiel' released in 1990 unequivocally established Ms. Lemper as the leading Kurt Weill interpreter since Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife and the singer for whom many of his vocal pieces were written. These three disks, sample pieces from most major Weill works written in German, including his most famous musical play, `The Threepenny Opera' (`Die Dreigroschenoper').
The first disc has fourteen tracks with three from `Der Silbersee' with lyrics by Kaiser, three from `Die Dreigroschenoper' with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, two from `Berliner Requiem' with lyrics by Brecht, two from `Mahagonny' with lyrics by Mahagonny, `Je ne t'aime pas with French lyrics by Magre, and three from `One Touch of Venus' with English lyrics by S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash.
The middle disc includes both works performed in their original German. After having listened to `The Seven Deadly Sins' done by several different artists, and having just reviewed a CD on which Anne Sofie von Otter does this work, I discover for the first time that the piece was written in two versions, one for a low voice and one for a high voice. Von Otter does the version for high voice and Lemper does the version for low voice that, I suspect, is the way it was originally performed by Fraulein Lenya. One service done by comparing Lemper and von Otter's performance is to see how much closer Lemper is to the original spirit of the work than is von Otter. Weill's venue was not the opera stages of Berlin or Vienna, it was the popular stage, actually much closer to what we see in the movie `Cabaret' than what we see in `Amadeus'. I enjoy von Otter's rendition, but Lemper stirs my heart where von Otter does not. Lemper also seems to have the benefit of a much better cast of supporting voices on the two works on Volume 1.
All albums are done with the backing of the RIAS Berlin Sinfonietta, conducted by John Mauceri who seems to get just the right tone of sleaze out of his ensemble to match the tone of the composition and lyrics by Weill and his various librettists, especially Berthold Brecht.
Volume 2 showcases Lemper's ability to sing with equal facility and understanding in German (Songs from `Happy End'), French (Songs from `Marie Galante'), and English (Songs from `Lady in the Dark'). While my understanding of French is far weaker than my understanding of the German and the English, when I compare Ms. Lemper's French interpretations with the French of Ms. Von Otter, I definitely prefer Lemper's treatment. She may not quite match Edith Piaf, but I feel she has a cachet all her own.
Lemper is a vocalist in that great European femme fatale tradition of Lenya, Piaf, and Dietrich and certainly to my lights the leading interpreter today of Weill's songs plus works by other European composers for the musical and cabaret (See her album `City of Strangers'). Compared to even some of the greatest contemporary American female vocalists on the stage such as Streisand and Minelli, both Yanks have their strength, but they can't or don't try to achieve the same depth of feeling behind the European `Weltschmertz' you hear from Lemper and her forerunners. The closest may be Minelli's performance as Sally Bowles in `Cabaret', but even there, she can't seem to hide her American innocence.
Of the three albums, the first of the three, `Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill' may be the best introduction, as it includes two of Weill's best English songs, `I'm a Stranger Here Myself' and `Speak Low'. The third, `Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill Vol. 2' has two of Weill's most famous German songs outside of `Die Dreigroschenoper', `Bilbao-Song' and `Surabaya-Johnny'.
If you encounter this review and have never heard Ute Lemper, I strongly urge you to try one of these albums. If the German and French turns you off, try Lemper's recent album, `Punishing Kiss'.
Very highly recommended.