Crossover Time!

Two pop icons and a diva jump the fence.

Critics love slagging musicians who fail to observe the distinction between "pop" and "classical." Going back at least to 1976's Classical Barbra (Streisand sings Schumann, beautifully), such projects are heard through a fog of preconceived notions about labels and attacked for all the wrong reasons, usually some variation on "How dare you?" Three new CDs raise these old issues again. If none of them quite hits its target, they're inarguably motivated by affection and none is inherently a bad idea. If ever there was a repertory that can't tolerate oversell, that crumbles at a heavy touch, it would be the songs with lute accompaniment by John Dowland (1563–1626), music of a rarely matched intimacy and expressivity. Sting has long been a Dowland fan, and in Songs From the Labyrinth (Deutsche Grammophon), there's no reason the intense but detached breathiness of his voice couldn't bring these songs to life. Except, after years of working in the studio, he couldn't manage to forget he was in one. Everything is miked extremely closely; each cricketlike scrape and squeak of Edin Karamazov's fingers on his lute strings is lovingly preserved, and Sting's delivery gets a little gulpy now and then, as though he were pushing notes out from the back of his throat at the mike. Also ill-judged is the reverb and overdubbing used to make four-part madrigals (in Dowland's own arrangements) out of a few of the songs. Sting is self-consciously making an album out of these songs (interspersing recited excerpts from Dowland's letters, even), whereas the ideal way to handle music so directly and simply communicative is to just sing and try to forget the tape is rolling. Acclaimed mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter has had a similar long-standing affection for the work of her countrymen Benny Andersson and Bjørn Ulvaeus, otherwise known as the songwriting half of Abba. Her new disc, I Let the Music Speak (Deutsche Grammophon), includes a few of their early pre-fame songs, one from their musical Chess, three from their 1995 emigrant operetta Kristina från Duvemåla, and, most interestingly, a few from The Visitors, their atypical, rather avant-garde (for them) final studio album—Abba's Abbey Road, in a way. It's an easy album to dislike, depending on your taste for vanilla. The songs are relentlessly pretty, and the smooth arrangements mostly trapped in 1973. Von Otter crosses the classical/pop divide comfortably—this isn't Joan Sutherland singing Janis Joplin, after all. Her spring-water voice and clean diction are not too far distant from Agnetha and Anni-Frid to begin with. One thing this Nordic princess pulls off less gracefully is camp; the vaudevillian "I Am Just a Girl" is embarrassing, though she does lend a theatrical slyness to "Money, Money, Money," reworked in a juicy, nightclubby Astor Piazzolla–in–Weimar version. Commissioned nearly a decade ago for the opening of an Oxford concert hall, Ecce Cor Meum was transformed by Sir Paul McCartney (and he never wrote music more Sir-like than this) into a memorial for his late wife, Linda, who died in 1998. (Heather Mills, the Second Mrs. DeWinter of pop music, goes unnamed anywhere on the disc.) On the EMI Classics recording of the work, there's little of the cheese of McCartney's quasi-autobiographical Liverpool Oratorio, but also little of that work's heartfelt vitality; little of the overreach of his creation-myth tone-poem Standing Stone, but nothing like its moments of real power. Ecce Cor Meum's eclecticism, a journey through 300 years of choral music with stops at Bach, Gounod, Vaughan-Williams, and Tavener, is understandable, even excusable; the billowy ponderousness is not, and the banality of the text will make your eyes widen in disbelief. The work does represent a milestone for McCartney the orchestral composer, though. As far as can be discerned from the liner notes, he wrote it alone (well, with a synthesizer and MIDI), not with the help of professional arrangers as before. And buried under the Yorkshire pudding is enough good stuff, the moving "Lament" in particular, to make you think he's on the right track at last. I don't quite need to hear Ecce Cor Meum again, but I do want to hear what McCartney comes up with next.

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