RenÈe Fleming recorded a set of songs with Mr. Mehldau called Love Sublime, and now Anne Sofie von Otter joins with him for Love Songs.
Ms. Otter has established her enthusiasm — if not her aptitude — for pop and/or contemporary material before. She recorded an album of pop songs with Elvis Costello and also chose her favorite ABBA songs for a CD dedicated to those artists. Here she and Mehldau spend the rather short running time of CD 1 with 7 poems set to music by the pianist. CD 2 consists of 13 songs from a disparate group of songwriters, including Jacques Brel, Lennon/McCartney, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Bernstein.
Five of the seven poems Mehldau sets for Love Songs come from Sara Teasdale. Her simple but affecting lyric style has a song-like ambiance, which should prove suitable material for musical setting. The other two poems — one by e. e. cummings and one from Philip Larkin — read quite differently in tone and approach. However, Mr. Mehldau is rather limited as a setter of music to texts, and the seven settings tend to blend together, losing the unique voice of each author. The vocal lines have no particular melodic distinction, and Ms. Von Otter has nothing much more to do than enunciate cleanly (which she does well). Mehldau’s accompaniment tends to be chord based, and his clumsy writing for the left hand — if not simply his playing — bogs most of the music down into regimented rhythmic tedium. Meanwhile the right hand reverts all too often to broken arpeggios. Love never seemed duller.
Disc two benefits from better material, from classics such as “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” to somewhat lesser known pieces, such as the two numbers in French by someone named Barbara. Apparently singer and pianist simply decided what songs they like, as the group does not pull together into any sort of cohesive musical statement. Von Otter sings Mitchell’s “Marcie” as nicely as she sings Richard Rodgers’s “Something Good” or “Blackbird.” But niceness is not a compelling vocal stance, and since she is not an experienced jazz vocalist, she sticks to the score. This limits Mehldau as accompanist. Presumably his jazz chops extend further than the banal support he offers here.
Von Otter has enjoyed a long and rewarding recording career, and her fans undoubtedly enjoy traveling with her across musical genres, as much as they may prefer her in the more expected repertoire of a classically trained singer. For those fans, this set may be enjoyable. Outside of such fans, those who value niceness over passion, inspiration and risk-taking may find Love Songs to be…quite nice.
product_by=Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Brad Mehldau, piano.
product_id=Naive V5241 [2CDs]