There is much to like about "Berlin Cabaret Songs," London's new CD featuring German singer Ute Lemper and the Matrix Ensemble under the direction of Robert Ziegler. The CD is part of London's "Entartete Musik" ("Degenerate Music") series, devoted to music suppressed by the Nazis; so we can feel appreciative that one of Hitler's crimes against humanity is being partially undone. We can be grateful for a vivid history lesson about the musical art of the Weimar Republic, Germany's brief intermission in its extended early 20th century run of tyranny and bloodshed. And the pill of historical education is nicely sugared by the fact that the songs are not only delightful, but sung in English.
But what is most likable about this disc is the performance of Lemper, billed by London as "one of the world's most glamorous and exotic singers." What her promoters neglect to mention is that Lemper is also one of the funniest. She is a first-rate clown, if not a three-ring-circus. On the 18 tracks, she plays at least 20 distinct and often hilarious characters. Whether she sings the oversexed, ambitious starlet ("Sex Appeal"), the depraved, man-eating vamp ("I am a Vamp") or the irate, man-hating feminist ("Chuck out the Men"), her comic flair never falters. Nor does her musicianship; even when clowning it up the most she sounds incapable of misshaping a phrase. Singing the part of a bimbo stripper ("Take it off Petronella!"), Lemper compels herself to sing out of tune, and it is the only moment on the disc that doesn't sound effortless. Her timing is flawless in the service of both comedy and music. She maneuvers with ease in and out of song and speech and accents and farcical growls and croaks. And in the few comparatively serious tracks on the disc, she is as sensitive and subtle as one could wish.
A few of the songs on this disc are notable more for their historical than their artistic value. The daring "Lavender song" is a good reminder that the modern gay rights movement began long before New York City's Stonewall riots in 1969, but the song is shrill and musically uninteresting. "The Washed-up Lover" reflects the atonal trends of the period's high musical art. As such it is interesting from a musicological perspective, but it is unfortunately dreadful to listen to.
Even these less enjoyable numbers are part of the disc's successful balance. The songs performed here provide more than just musical enjoyment and some laughs; they offer a sense of time and place. "Berlin Cabaret Songs" translates an artistic moment, one whose spirit and whose fate we would be foolish to forget.