Edinburgh Festival’s star cabaret singer invited us to join her on a trip of Germany through time: before the Wall came down, before the Second World War and before the rise of the Nazi party, back to the chaotic Weimar Republic when there were several dozen political parties, when the world was digesting the paintings of Otto Dix and when Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht were in artistic collision. The Edinburgh International Festival’s logo this year is rusty barbed wire sprouting bluebells along its length, as its focus is on turmoil and unrest in this anniversary year of the start of the Great War, so soprano Ute Lemper’s focus on music from troubled times fitted this year’s theme like a glove.

Ute Lemper © Karen Koehler
Ute Lemper
© Karen Koehler

To set the 1930 scene, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under conductor Lawrence Foster performed Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, his official suite of numbers from the Threepenny Opera, arranged for brass, wind, piano and accordion. Although there was fine playing and some good solo work, it all felt rather too polite for music which should come with a bittersweet bite. A performance of Stravinsky’s Scènes de Ballet to open the second half was more successful. Written in America as a revue commission, it has remained mainly a concert piece, but has been staged as a ballet. Bookended by bold brass chords the players tackled the vignettes with care, developing the various themes before finishing in a blaze of sound. Stravinsky described the work as typical post-war Hollywood, so it set the scene for the second set of songs.

Cabaret is a tricky balance for a symphony orchestra, with a miked singer, guitar, drums and bass but with everyone else playing acoustically. The crackle a smaller ensemble can deliver is sacrificed for the chance to use a larger musical palette. Here, although there seemed to be other microphones sprinkled about, the sound was strangely odd and not quite balanced across the Usher Hall stage, with too much bass and a rather muffled drum kit, which was a pity. The piano, the rhythm bass and the drum kit were deeply hidden away between the cellos and violas, a good distance from Lemper, who was standing at the front on the other side of the conductor – particularly strange for the piano-accompanied numbers, which, in a nightclub, would have seen Lemper closer to the pianist. More positively, this concert was performed by the light of music stands and dappled mood lighting which changed throughout, painting a nightspot rather than concert-hall atmosphere.

Ute Lemper demonstrated exactly why she is renowned for her interpretation of 1930s repertoire, as she completely inhabited each song. Dressed in sparkly black for the first half (consisting mostly of Weill songs, peppered with Kander’s Cabaret and a haunting modern piece, Avec le temps by Léo Ferré), Lemper’s tone went from hushed through to declamatory and back again in an instant, sometimes talking, even whispering through the music. Tossing her blonde hair, waving her arms and twisting her hips as the songs took her, it was difficult to take one’s eyes off this most compelling chanteuse for a moment, particularly when she edged performances with a deep darkness reflecting the times. Singing in German, French and in charmingly accented English, she took time between songs to explain historical contexts and some gems, like commenting on how Brecht went from a poor to a rich Marxist. Lemper’s voice is still as powerful as ever, although occasionally a grittier aspect shows through, providing a suitable edgy tone that suited the material.

Songs from Marlene Dietrich followed, including an unforgettable Lily Marlene with only piano accompaniment (Ian Buckle), and an already extraordinary evening really took off when Lemper gave Ich bin die fesche Lola the full jazz treatment. Later, she explained how fortunate it was that Édith Piaf fell for composers before launching into Marguerite Monnot’s Milord, then a barnstorming version of Padam … Padam, the ghosts of Paris working themselves up into a crazy waltz, before leaving us with an encore of La Vie en rose.

The absolute highlight of the evening was a set of three songs from Hans Eisler, who worked with Brecht from 1930. A committed communist, he ended up driven out of America back to Germany where he remained politically active in the East. The three songs all had lush orchestral accompaniment: Die Ballade vom Wasserrad was about a waterwheel from Brecht’s play The Roundheads and the Pointyheads, but Der Graben ("The Trench") was a powerful anti-war polemic, and, in the emotional core song of the night, Ute Lemper gave a heartfelt, passionate personal stamp on both this and the final anti-Semitic song of the group which contained klezmer music, Die Ballade von Marie Sanders. Chiming as it does with this festival’s theme and, sadly, with the current newspaper headlines, it was a chilling reminder that we have not learnt as much as we should from the turbulent times in Germany between the World Wars.

Lawrence Foster conducted with absolute clarity, making sure the orchestra always followed Lemper as she bent her songs and verses, weaving this way and that telling her stories. The orchestra clearly relished playing this repertoire, but it was Lemper, never short of mesmerising, who completely captivated this capacity Usher Hall audience.