Strikes a balance that should appeal to fans of either musician – and to neutrals too.
John Eyles 2010
Over the past two decades, pianist Brad Mehldau has been consistently inventive, notably with his own trio. His eclectic taste led him to perform compositions by Nick Drake and Radiohead alongside his own music. In contrast, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter is renowned for her operatic roles and performances of lieder. She has recorded with Elvis Costello and made an album of Abba covers, but has shown no previous inclination to sing jazz.
This pairing is not an immediately obvious one, initially looking like a project dreamed up by record company executives. It actually arose out of the pair’s mutual respect which led to Mehldau writing the song cycle Love Songs for her to perform at Carnegie Hall in 2009. Following that, they decided to record together.
Love Songs is an album of two very different discs. The first one contains an extended version of that song cycle, for which Mehldau set seven love poems to music, including five by lyrical poet Sara Teasdale plus one each from Philip Larkin and E. E. Cummings.
Von Otter’s performances emphasise vocal purity over the content of the verses, giving them a chilly beauty. She injects most emotion into the Teasdale poems Because and Did You Never Know?, and they are the better for it. Mehldau mainly acts as accompanist, with only the occasional piano break hinting at the scope of his talent.
For the second disc, the pair suggested favourite songs to each other, unsurprisingly coming up with a varied list of show tunes, chansons and popular songs that balance European and American material. The songs’ common denominators are their strong melodies and emotions. Von Otter sings them all expressively, making this disc warmer and more engaging than the first. She is noticeably more emotive on the songs sung in French, such as Jacques Brel’s Chanson des Vieux Amants. Mehldau gets more space to shine than on his song cycle.
Meetings of jazz and classical musicians run the risk of pleasing no-one. Love Songs strikes a balance that should appeal to fans of either musician – and to neutrals too.