Album review

Birgit Minichmayr – ‘As An Unperfect Actor: Nine Shakespeare Sonnets’

Birgit MinichmayrAs An Unperfect Actor.

Nine Shakespeare Sonnets set to music by Bernd Lhotzky with Quadro Nuevo

(ACT 9931-2. Album review by John Arnett)

It is extraordinary to think that this is Birgit Minichmayr’s first complete album as a vocalist, such is her command of the material and the sheer range of emotion and mood she conjures up. Primarily an actor and very well known to German-speaking audiences, she has extensive film, theatre and TV credits, Shakespearean roles amongst them, including with the Burgtheater Company in Vienna. As she says “What was most exciting was not just to be singing Shakespeare, but to be singing at all – and especially with these people” The people in question are composer, arranger and pianist Bernd Lhotzky, and the four hugely accomplished members of Quadro Nuevo, formed in 1996 and with sixteen previous albums to their name, on double bass and percussion, guitar, reeds and accordion.

There have in recent years been a couple of notable recordings giving musical form to Shakespeare’s sonnets, although neither within the orbit of jazz. Rufus Wainwright’s 2016 “Take all my loves”, released on the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, likewise featured settings of nine sonnets, with various guest vocalists. Composer Robert Hollingworth’s 2012 album “Shakespeare – the Sonnets”, reckoned to be the first such attempt, features original settings using C17th period instruments, of eleven sonnets. Clearly there is a rich and immensely rewarding resource here when it comes to expressing and enacting the many moods of love. (Interestingly, sonnet 8 “Music to hear” uses the extended metaphor of music itself to this purpose).

Opening track “My mistress’ eyes” grabs your attention and doesn’t let go – a powerful and full blooded tango, very much the province of Quadro Nuevo, complete with Argentinian bandoneon. It is thoroughly appropriate to the argument of the poem, with its reversal of courtly conventions (music has a “far more pleasing sound” than the mistress’ voice). The other very intriguing reversal of expectations of course is that it is not a man but a woman delivering the lines here. The overall effect is both dramatic and somewhat sinister. In complete contrast, track two “When in disgrace” is very much softer, more melodious and melancholy, again fitting perfectly the theme of despair and withdrawal from the world, but with a hopeful and redemptive message at the close. The melody is sinuous and haunting, the singing altogether compelling.

One thing that distinguishes this album is the ease and fluency with which compositions, band and singer move between diverse styles, genres and moods, from almost burlesque tango to slow ballad, to bebop, to cool jazz club swing. There is a good deal of variety and versatility in the instrumentation too – Mulo Francel being equally at home with saxophone, clarinet and contrabass clarinet, for example, and DD Lowka switching with ease between double bass and percussion. Brilliant young guitarist Philip Schiepek plays both acoustic and electric jazz guitar here, and it is easy see why composer Lhotzky speaks so highly of him.

Title track “As An Unperfect Actor” stands out as a particularly atmospheric and mysterious piece, the longest on the album, in which all concerned conspire to quite magical effect. Both accompaniment and singing are softly delivered, spacious, melodic and restrained, in stark contrast to the strength, rage and ferocity alluded to in the poem, with a haunting five note phrase running throughout. A series of marvellous extended solos featuring Spanish guitar, accordion and piano in turn leads back into a reprise of the final six lines of song, with only the piano hinting at the dissonance inherent in the text. Rufus Wainwright’s comment on the enduring appeal of the sonnets is very much to the point here, and throughout – “so much of the language and sentiment is contemporary – gender, sexuality, love and hate – it is searing.”

This is an album that makes the point with great originality, wit and understanding – but in a way that is always highly entertaining.

Writer John Arnett has taught English in both further and higher education contexts, and has a fascination for Shakespeare. He is also a keen guitarist.

German release date for As An Unperfect Actor is 28 May 2021

LINKS: Birgit Minichmayr artist page at ACT

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