wed 19/06/2024

Lemper, SCO, Foster, Usher Hall, Edinburgh | reviews, news & interviews

Lemper, SCO, Foster, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Lemper, SCO, Foster, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Full orchestral back-up for the charismatic chanteuse in trademark Weill and others

Ute Lemper: 'when she is singing on stage, it is difficult to look in any other direction'Karen Koehler

Twenty years ago Ute Lemper came to the Usher Hall to sing Kurt Weill. The young pretender to the Lotte Lenya throne performed then on a bare stage with little more than a piano as accompaniment. Last night, she swept onto a platform crammed with a massively augmented Scottish Chamber Orchestra, with saxophone, guitar, banjo, rhythm section, accordion, grand piano, and a squadron of percussion. Microphones, foldback, and towers of gently whirring loudspeakers filled any remaining space.

Seductive lighting dappled the walls.

In her cabaret repertoire of Weill, Eisler, Marlene Dietrich and others, Ute Lemper holds the floor like none other. She has a portfolio of gestures, a sway of the hips, a flick of the left arm (the right holds the microphone), and a backwards toss of the head, none of which are particularly elegant or balletic, but when she is singing  on stage it is difficult to look in any other direction. She is very slick: her English is charmingly slightly accented, her French impeccable, her linking narratives just the right length and the segues into the songs effortlessly casual.

The orchestra may have been some distance, both in size and epoque, from its core early classical repertoire but under the precise but good humoured direction of Lawrence (or Larry) Foster it swayed effortlessly to the Lemper beat. If you were looking for nits to pick you might argue such large orchestral forces blunt the bittersweet edginess of classic Weill songs such as "Surabaya Johnny" or "Mack the Knife", but the truth is that it did not matter, thanks partly to first class sound design. The entire orchestra was amplified and many instruments were wired up but the overall effect, while punchy, was subtle and naturalistic. (Sound engineers are seldom praised: you only notice when sound goes wrong).

These songs were beautifully sung, nostalgic and sensuous, the piano sound sweet and warmIf anything, the presentation was almost too perfect. For Weill’s wistful "Salomon-Song", stage crew appeared in the wings and with lightning speed produced microphone, chair and music stand for the solo accordionist Paul Chamberlain. Not missing a beat, Lemper glided across the stage to sing next to him but the intimacy of this moment, though real, felt like the fragile echo of a past era when this song might have been sung in a Berlin basement in a fug of tobacco and alcohol fumes.

Slightly more puzzling was the decision to place the piano somewhere invisibly deep in the lower orchestral strings, so that the accompaniments for "Lili Marlene", or "Falling in Love Again", which are for piano alone (Ian Buckle), appeared to come only out of the loudspeakers. Did it matter? Shut your eyes and it did not: these songs were beautifully sung, nostalgic and sensuous, the piano sound sweet and warm. Look up at the stage, though, and it did seem a little strange that Lemper was not cradled in the crook of the piano, draping her long arms over the woodwork, as she did twenty years ago.

But these were only two of many songs, and in others the full orchestral sound was used to impressive effect, particularly in the lachrymose French chanson "Avec le Temps" (a bit of a time warp from the 1970 album Amour Anarchie by Léo Ferré) and devastatingly in a triptych of songs by Hanns Eisler, whose powerful anti-war setting "Der Graben" (The Trench) suggested the fury and emotional directness that I associate with operatic Janáček.

Had the concert consisted of Ute Lemper alone, the enthusiastic sell-out audience would have left happily at 9.30pm after a full evening’s entertainment. But for slightly unfathomable programming reasons the festival chose also to include two substantial episodes for orchestra alone. The evening began with Weill’s Threepenny Opera Suite and after the interval we heard Stravinsky’s elegant Scènes de Ballet. The former could be seen, in style and orchestration, as a suitable, slightly acidic overture to the rest of the evening, but the Stravinsky, beautifully played as it was, seemed rather wan alongside the glitz and glamour that had preceded it. As if to emphasise its separateness, the fancy lighting was turned off to be replaced by the Usher Hall’s standard orchestral white wash. It might have seemed like interesting programming when they thought it up, but in the event it seemed slightly dislocated.

In her cabaret repertoire of Weill, Eisler, Marlene Dietrich and others, Ute Lemper holds the floor like none other


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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The point of the article, the excellence of Ute Lemper and her delivery of the songs is not questionable, but the sound... It was dire. As a record producer said: the more microphones you have the less chance you have of producing good sound. Even the two bassoons had a microphone each! The SCO play week in week out in the Usher Hall without amplification - and very well they do it. There was a constant hiss like heavy rain throughout. Quieter playing in the two orchestral pieces got lost in this. As the article says, at times if you believed your ears and shut your eyes your brain told you Ute, pianist and Steinway were hanging from the rafters, way above the stage. Also towards the end of the concert where everything became louder, due to the amplification Ute Lemper had to force her voice to an unfortunate, uncharacteristic, unnecessary roughness. Give the star an edge - yes. But the SCO didn't need it and normally sound better without it.

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