Review of For The Stars
Andante, 2001-05-01
- Daniel Felsenfeld


Costello and Von Otter Triumph
Daniel Felsenfeld

For The Stars, Elvis Costello and Anne Sofie von Otter's unlikely collaboration.

For the Stars: Anne Sofie von Otter Meets Elvis Costello
Deutsche Grammophon

Our generation’s Swedish nightingale collaborating with the godfather of punk? Yes - and the result is spectacular. This record, a alliance between the brainy, genre-leaping New Wave rocker and one of the most elegant mezzo-sopranos to grace the international stage, is a collection of songs not by Strauss or Schubert, but by Costello himself, Tom Waits, and other composers not known for their contributions to the classical repertoire. Ventures like this tend to be either fascinating glimpses at a lesser-known side of a performer (as with the great dramatic soprano Eileen Farrell singing jazz standards) or an embarrassing attempt at popularity (such as Christmas in Vienna - Plácido Domingo, Diana Ross, José Carreras). For the Stars falls beautifully into the former category - and makes us hope that it is the start of an enduring professional romance.

Von Otter's rendition of the Lennon/McCartney song "For No One," accompanied by an electric cello, is ravishing and intimate; her performance of ABBA's "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room" (with composer Benny Andersson playing piano) is cool and distant, but sung with a commitment typically reserved for Strauss lieder; the singer's crystalline high notes during "Go Leave" draw attention to the song's emotion rather than her dazzling technique. Von Otter's gift for character and drama is evident throughout: her portrayal of the spurned or cuckolded, as in "Baby Plays Around," "The Other Woman," and "This House is Empty Now," is particularly heartbreaking. She never panders or overreaches, and if at times she seems "overqualified" (as with her precise enunciation of "going to" as opposed to "gonna" during "Take it with Me"), it passes for a classical singer's idiosyncrasy rather than a lack of style.

The two songs Costello wrote specifically for von Otter - the icily Nordic "No Wonder" and the optimistic title track (in which Costello fashions a composer’s lament in the lyric "If I’d taken up the trumpet as I should have done / then I wouldn’t be / losing sleep / trying to write this down / for the stars.") - capture her emotional range brilliantly. The album's weaker moments, like the saccharine "You Still Believe in Me," are rare, and are counterbalanced by songs like Ron Sexsmith's "April After All" and the Fleshquartet's settings of Costello's lyrics "Rope" and "Just a Curio," which evoke Gavin Bryars' and Michael Gordon’s "ambient classical" compositions.

The recording, in both sound quality and material, feels strikingly personal - a far cry from so many mixed-bag collections by classical vocalists; the overall effect is one of well-managed, tasteful introspection. Skeptical fans in both camps will not be disappointed: Anne Sofie von Otter's singing is as masterful and pure as on her classical records, while Elvis Costello's aim, after all these years, is still true.

© andante Corp. April 2001. All rights reserved.