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Ute Lemper, St George’s Bristol, 19 Oct

October 20, 2017

I go to hear singers I love live to feel the presence of the voice. My eyes may well be closed, or unfocussed much of the time. With June Tabor, say, Christine Tobin, or Gregory Porter, that’s not important. It’s all about the vibrations they make in the air.

With Ute Lemper, that would be a mistake. She inhabits a song, bodily, like no-one else. You can see the early training in dance and drama in a constant flow of studied gestures. Every arch of eyebrow, sidewise glance, tilt of head, jut of hip, and curve of finger seems perfectly calibrated. When she dons a hat, the angle of the brim is just so.

It’s a mesmerising spectacle. There’s a well-drilled trio accompanying – piano, bass and splendid bandoneon – each doing exactly the right thing at every turn. It’s hard to give them more than passing glance. This show is about the woman centre stage.

It’s also about her in rehearsing her own history, through songs she has chosen over the years. After 3 decades, her repertoire is vast, beginning with the Weimar-era pieces that first caught the ear of many, taking in chanson, Piazzolla, and her own settings of Neruda, Bukowski, Coelho…

Tonight is a mix of all of these, linked by evocative talk about times and places and, often, a rapid, deft, narration of the song in English before it is delivered in German, French, Spanish or (once) Yiddish.

All of it works brilliantly. The show isn’t perfect. She tries to do too much, and some pf the Brecht/Weill songs lose power when reduced to a micro-medley. Her recent work with the poets is mentioned, but fills only a couple of minutes. But each individual piece done properly is nigh-on perfect. There is an artistic discipline here, and a level of excellence in performance, that you may come across only once or twice a year if you’re lucky.

And in the end, it is still all in the service of the song, and the lyric. She has said how much she hated being in Cats all those years ago – her first big break – because of the tedium of choroegraphed repetition. She didn’t care much for Chicago, either, because the part was “shallow”. Neither feature in this retrospective, where the fare is altogether meatier. There are songs of deep feeling, political anger, existential doubt, exultant defiance: Illusions and Falling in Love Again (a la Dietrich); Spolliansky and Schiffer’s It’s All A Swindle (misanthropy distilled); Philip Glass and Tara Hugo’s Streets of Berlin; Serge Gainsbourg’s Ces Petits Riens and Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas,  the two together more forlorn than you can imagine.

All this was more than enough – five of us in the fifth row of St George’s were transfixed for two sets – but there was a distinctly jazz flourish to some of the songs that came off better than when we last saw her (in Bath in 2011). That keeps things fresh. She is so meticulous you wouldn’t be surprised to find that the scat episodes are worked out in advance second-by-second, but the youtube evidence suggests they are genuinely spontaneous – they certainly sound it. The uproarious encore, Naughty Lola, was jazziest of all, with some vocal trumpet thrown in for good measure – not quite Andreas Schaerer but impressively accurate (of course). It swept up the whole hall in a sense that “now the work is about over, and I (and you) can really have some fun”. Quite a night.

Oh, and in a show of near constant movement, she doesn’t neglect the power of stillness. Like this:






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