Even in this era of cross-fertilisation, when cut-and-paste recording technology makes a virtue of blending disparate styles, the gulf between classical and popular music remains enormous. Pop may occasionally appropriate motifs from the great composers as gimmicky hooks, and classical superstars score novelty hits with TV theme tunes, but there is precious little genuine creative interchange between these two musical communities. Concerts are performed in different venues, recordings sold at distinct outlets and counters, sales accounted in separate charts and (perhaps most crucially) work is created, listened to and judged on almost entirely different criteria. Despite the brave efforts of a few, after a decade of co-existence, classical music and mass-market pop share little more than the same range of notes.
Yet this hasn't deterred Anne Sofie von Otter and Elvis Costello from recording an album together. Released next week by DG/Universal, For the Stars is a collection of contemporary songs, thoughtfully arranged and produced by Costello with a quirky mixture of electric and classical instrumentation and given unique interpretations by a voice from a different realm.
Acclaimed as one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos in the world, von Otter brings a graceful phrasing and pureness of pitch and tone to the material that even the composers could never have dreamed of — as Costello can attest. "When I sang 'This House Is Empty Now' (which originally appeared on his 1998 Burt Bacharach collaboration, Painted from Memory), I had to will the high notes into existence — they're not really available to my voice," he says. "When Anne Sofie sings the same song, the melody suddenly sounds achievable and really elegant."
"I made this record for totally selfish reasons," says von Otter, who has recorded more than 80 albums of lieder and opera. "I have always enjoyed this kind of music. This is the way I sing at home, for my own pleasure."
It is a curiously thrilling admission. Who would have thought that a classical superstar might unwind after a hard night at the opera by belting out Beach Boys and Abba songs (both groups she covers on the album). She confesses, however, that she was not likely to be heard humming Costello songs before they met. "I had a vague idea that he was an angry young man," she says, "which is not my cup of tea."
Costello, for his part, was an enormous admirer of von Otter's, even including one of her recordings in his Desert Island Discs. He had been regularly attending her performances since seeing her at the Wigmore Hall in 1989. "I was moved beyond words," he says. "Friends and relations will tell you that this is unusual." When von Otter finally met the rock star, who regularly sent her flowers, she was pleasantly surprised to discover he was neither particularly young (he is 46, she 45) nor angry anymore. "He is so sharp, so intelligent, so hard-working and so talkative!" she says.
If you find it hard to imagine these two on the same record, you should see them sitting together in the same room. The contrast is almost comical, a physical embodiment of the very gap that they are attempting to bridge. Wearing an outfit of understated class, von Otter sits erect and poised on a chaise-longue, a look of quiet amusement on her face. Costello, meanwhile, slumps on a plush armchair, unkempt and unshaven, his baggy black suit and pork-pie hat giving him the air of a reckless hobo unimpressed by his high-toned surroundings. Where one is almost entirely self-contained, the other cannot seem to contain himself at all. Von Otter exudes dignified reserve, carefully considering before she speaks — which means that she can barely get a word in edgeways in the company of her effusive, argumentative, passionate and excitable collaborator.
Costello is something of a musical polymath. The son of big-band leader Ross McManus, he has long since transcended his punk-rock origins to become acclaimed as one of the finest singer-songwriters of the past 25 years, with a range that encompasses everything from jazz to country and western. Although not classically trained, over the past decade he has pursued an interest in classical composing and arranging, most notably collaborating on song cycles with the Brodsky Quartet (one of which, Three Distracted Women, was written for von Otter). His first full-length orchestral work, a ballet based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, was premiered to good reviews in Italy last November.
It was Costello's pop expertise, however, on which von Otter wanted to draw when she proposed a collaboration. "I think she may have used that dreadful word 'crossover'," he recalls. "I tend to see 'crossover' as taking some music that is regarded as difficult and dumbing it down." Four years of exchanging ideas and selecting material followed, driven by Costello's conviction that von Otter "could do something different from what had been achieved before by classically trained singers performing popular repertoire".
The key seems to have been restraint in all things, from the quirky, spacious arrangements to the soft, almost hushed quality of the vocals. "Whenever I tried to flex my muscles," says von Otter, "I got the message that it doesn't work."
"Singing close to the microphone, you don't have to do as much," says Costello. "It's like the difference between stage and movie acting. Loud doesn't matter — it's all tone. Pop singers tend to have small, thin tone that cuts through. Anne Sofie has a huge spectrum that you don't often hear in pop."
This was brought home to Costello when it came to recording harmonies for the first of several duets. "There was no room left for my voice. So we developed this idea, I think quite wisely, that the way for me to make an appearance was by taking up the story at a certain point in the song. So there are only a few bars where we actually sing together."
Elvis and Anne Sofie, then, are clearly not set to replace Sonny and Cher in the public's affections, but their collaboration is a genuine, admirable curiosity. To these untrained ears, the quality of the singing is quite mesmerising, yet the precision of delivery and slightly precious air of perfectionism seems to conspire against soulfulness.
Von Otter herself has an idea why that might be. "Classical singers are so careful not to abuse the voice, not laugh too much, or cough too much, not catch a cold, not to drink too much, because it's all about the smoothness of the voice. But for some rock singers it is the opposite. Take Rod Stewart — what his vocal cords look like, I don't even want to even think! But if a singer goes for it and you can hear that it's costing them something, that makes it all the more interesting. You can feel the pain. But that's not for me. I don't think it would go down well at a classical recital, not at all."