Recorded in June 2010 at the Berwald Concert Hall, Stockholm, Sweden
Mixed at Studio Babel, Paris
American jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau and Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter pair up on this two-disc set of love songs. The first disc is devoted to Mehldau's Love Songs, a seven-song cycle commissioned by Carnegie Hall, KolnMusik, and Wigmore Hall. He takes as his texts five poems by Sara Teasdale and one each by e.e. cummings and Philip Larkin. Although the influence of American vernacular music is evident throughout, these are clearly not pop songs; they fit better in the "New American Art Song" category exemplified by composers like Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, and John Musto. Mehldau's songs are notable for their generous lyricism, subtly complex rhythmic drive, a gift for melody, and a potent emotional punch. Although they make a striking set all together and each song is fully successful, "Twilight" and "Dreams" are especially evocative and memorable. The texts describe a variety of romantic experiences, but Mehldau's settings are essentially positive and optimistic. Not so the majority of songs on the second disc, most of which have the character of profoundly melancholy torch songs. About half are French, by composers such as Michel Legrand, Jacques Brel, and Leo Ferre, and there are songs by Joni Mitchell (the heartbreaking "Marcie"), Bob Telson ("Calling You"), and Leonard Bernstein ("Some Other Time"), among others. Von Otter does not have the sound of a crossover artist, but she has the maturity and flexibility to being just the right looseness and expressive freedom to these songs to make her performances fully persuasive. Her tone is full and pure, and her investment in the songs is absolute. Mehldau's exceptionally sensitive and inventive accompaniments contribute immeasurably to the success of the album. The sound is appropriately warm and intimate, but is a little on the close side on the second disc.
All Music Guide
The genisis for the double-disc release, Love Songs, was a commission from Carnegie Hall for Brad Mehldau to write songs for Anne Sofie Von Otter, for voice and piano. Later, he was commissioned again jointly from Carnegie Hall and Wigmore Hall in London and wrote two more songs. Those songs received their debut performances at Carnegie Hall and Wigmore respectively, and appear here for the first time, on the first CD of this two disc set.
For the second CD, Anne Sofie and Brad present singular interpretations of a wide variety of material. There are great French songs here from Jacques Brel, Leo Ferre, Barbara, and Michel Legrand; there are American songbook classics - some in the orignal English, and a few surprises in Swedish, Anne Sofie's mother tongue. There are songs from Lennon and McCartney and Joni Mitchell, and more contemporary pop music.
All of these were selected by Anne Sofie and Brad, who went back and forth with each other, finding the material together, and then went through a lot of music before settling on the program that is presented here. When the two of them perform together in an upcoming tour during the next year, their program promises to be as varied as Love Songs itself is: They will perform some of the classical art songs that Anne Sofie is most often associated with, and will also perform a selection from the new record - both Brad's own songs, and some of the other pop, jazz and French songs as well. It promises to be a special concert experience.
Love Songs begins with a setting of e.e. cummings, "it may not always be so". Mehldau thinks of it as a youthful, tragic poem for all ages, because, he explains, "when one falls in love at any age, one become young again, and not just in the joyful carefree sense. That green disposition is a permanent possibility as long as blood flows through our veins. One engages in youthful folly even if he or she has been down that road before. While I was setting Cummings' poem, I was reading Phillip Roth's recent novel, Exit Ghost, which portrays that kind of folly through the actions and thoughts of its septuagenarian narrator. Cummings' poem is so moving because it telegraphs the speaker's inability to put such a mixture of adoration and despair into words. His singular way of messing with syntax is helps to make that despair palpable, as in the lines: "in such a silence as I know, or such/great writhing words as, uttering overmuch,/stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;". We feel the anguish of the speaker as he gets stuck on those writhing words, swallowing them. I tried to convey that writhing feeling in my setting."
Next is a setting of Philip Larkin's We Met at The End of The Party. Mehldau says, "The way time is rendered is central to Larkin's poem. Larkin addresses his beloved in the present moment, but we know that their meeting never spawned a lasting relationship. He speaks, though, in three distinct tenses: In the first half of the poem, everything is in the past tense; in the next three lines, we are in the present moment; finally, the last 5 lines are in the conditional mood, looking back to what could have been. The brevity of the poem and conversational tone of the speaker are masterfully misleading, because this poem is really three poems in one - a poem about love in the past, a poem about unrequited love in the present, and a poem about a love that could have been. I decided to focus on these three sub-moods within the poem, letting them guide my setting. The motoric rhythm of the piano that begins the song represents the passage of time; in the middle section, time "stops" and we focus on the voice more speaking to his/her beloved. The last section moves again, but slower with more pathos. The motoric rhythm resumes briefly in the piano to end the song, signaling a synthesis - what was and what could have been, considered here and now. "
The five songs that follow - the "Love Songs" proper - form a cycle. They are settings of Sara Teasdale's poems, which were simply titled, "Love Songs." Mehldau explains how he came to these poems: "I knew when I found them that they were the ones. Teasdale is telling us in the title that they are songlike. They are so rhythmic and simple, and so clear in meaning. And the conviction of her words really rang through to me. I feel like these poems are singularly, vitally female, and that seemed so right for the female voice."
Child, Child is the first of the group as it is in the original book of poems. It begins with an iconic chord on the piano and establishes a dancing figure in 5/4 meter:
Here, the tone is imperative: "Love," it commands, and tells us how and why; this is a statement of purpose for the poems that follow, and voices the poet's conviction that love is not just another feeling, but a necessity for us to live. Mehldau explains, "I imagined a ritualistic dance in my setting - perhaps with women only - in which love is praised and prayed for." In Twilight, the piano traces the sound of the falling rain and the falling wings of night; from the voice, we hear the sound of the bird calling and the woman's own voice calling out to her lover. Because is the ballad of the 5 songs here, meant to mirror the devotion expressed in the poem.
Dreams is the most violent of the group. "To me," Mehldau says, "this poem is about sexual feeling and desire - that's the way I read it. The female speaker of the poem has an erotic dream that culminates in a climax. I tried to telegraph that experience in the music." Finally, there is "Did You Never Know", which is told from a later perspective, looking back - the narrator has loved, and speaks to the object of her love once more. The Teasdale cycle ends like this,
tracing the same chord that began the cycle. It is, Mehldau explains, his "love" chord: "It's a chord you hear cropping up in music from various places sources - western, eastern, modern, ancient. It's an important sound, for example, in Nick Drake's River Man. There is an open fifth in the chord, which suggests unity and balance, yet it is offset by the presence of the tritone right below the fifth, the wonderful rubbing dissonance of the major second above the tonic, and the absence of a major or minor third to make it a triad proper. For me, here, it's the love chord. It expresses desire and consummation all at once - perpetual longing, Sehnsucht. That chord starts the cycle in a brighter D tonality, and at the end of the cycle, it has descended a half step to the more hymnlike C-sharp. Formally, I've been stuck on cycles for a while, but I also like the idea more specifically of a cycle where the tonal center descends and we end lower than we started - it's a way of telegraphing the aging process perhaps, or more generally giving a feeling of time passing."