This combined effort from Anne Sofie von Otter and pop singer/songwriter Elvis Costello is astonishingly good. Of the eighteen cuts here, Costello wrote words and music to three of them, and lyrics alone to four others. The non-Costello songs include contributions by such pop luminaries as Burt Bacharach, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys), and Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (of ABBA). The songs, mostly soulful ballads, are unfailingly pleasant, even in their melancholy; some are downright exquisite. The catchiest is whichever one you heard last. The arrangements, mostly by Costello and "the Ensemble," are tasteful combinations of electric and acoustic instruments, the best of which evoke the more classically-influenced Beatles songs (think "Eleanor Rigby" or "She's Leaving Home"). There is, in fact, an actual Beatles tune on the disc, "For No One." (This novel and graceful rendition is accompanied and arranged by the electric-acoustic string group Fleshquartet, whose members also wrote the music for three of the albums best and most unusual numbers.) Costello joins von Otter on vocals in six of the songs.
Von Otter is magnificent. Her English is superb, her delivery natural, understated and intimate. She comes off her voice just enough, relaxing into the music in a completely idiomatic way. Meanwhile, her technical facility allows her to float up to a high G in one number, and shift effortlessly into her chest-voice for a dusky low C in another. If you didn't know who she was, you'd think you had just discovered a fabulous new pop-ballad chanteuse. And you have.
Von Otter also makes appearances on two impressive new discs from the adventurous Brodsky Quartet (who previously have teamed with Costello). The albums feature music of Peter Sculthorpe (b. 1929) and Ottorino Respighi respectively. Sculthorpe draws much of his musical inspiration from the heritage and landscape of his native Australia; von Otter's contribution to his String Quartet No. 13 (Island Dreaming) consists mostly of Aboriginal chanting, while the instrumentalists surround her with euphonious, atmospheric recreations of sea and bird sounds. In meeting the unusual demands of this piece, she reveals yet another side of her utterly committed artistry. (The Sculthorpe disc also features her in the sweet, two-and-a-half-minute Maranoa Lullaby.) Respighi's little-known but fervid and lovely II Tramonto (The Sunset), a dramatic, declamatory setting of a Shelley poem, comes closer to a mainstream aesthetic. Von Otter handles this surging, expressive tale of a loved one's death with passion, elan and perfect intonation, as do the Brodskys.