It’s not unusual for pop or rock stars to branch out into the world of classical music. Off the top of my head, Paul McCartney’s done it and Elvis Costello’s done it, and even a briefest of Google searches reveal many more (Roger Waters, Glen Danzig included). They probably don’t do it to appeal to existing fans though there will always be a number that take an interest. As a Costello fan I enjoyed ‘The Juliet Letters’ with the Brodsky Quartet and ‘For The Stars’, a collaboration with Anne Sofie von Otter but failed to investigate ‘Il Sogno’ from 2002 on Deutsche Grammophon. And so it is I approach Rufus Wainwright and his collaborative DG release of 9 of William Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Music mixes with spoken word here, and guests are aplenty, William Shatner, Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher, Florence Welch, Martha Wainwright and Anna Prohaska included. I’d be more looking forward to this if it was mainly Rufus and his own vocal interpretations, and if the subject was something other than the bard, I’m not at all a Shakespeare fan, a take on the great poets for instance would be more enticing for me. But still, open mind and all that and being a fan of Rufus since his very first album, I’m a gonna give it a go.
So, the spoken word bits are hard going for me. Fairly straight recital, sometimes over minimalist music backing, they just don’t stoke my fires. Carrie Fisher and William Shatner carry a little more interest than the others simply because I know them from films and TV that I have watched though this is not enough to really capture my attention as mind reaches for the Shakespeare off switch.
The music though is quality throughout and the songs mask the Shakespearean language a bit too. Everything is beautifully recorded and performed, and there is enough to link this to Rufus own work in rock and pop. His own first vocal contribution comes on track three, ‘Take All My Loves (Sonnet 40)’, and has a stirring almost Scott Walker-ish quasi experimental rock-classical approach to it. As a rock and Rufus fan it’s great, it’d make a Rufus compilation even. Not sure what Shakespeare scholars would make of it. I’d expect reactions to run the range from sacrilege to inspired. The albums joint production with Marius De Vries also links the work to Rufus’ past, and gives things a solid grounding. ‘A Woman’s Face (Sonnet 20)’ the second track to feature the works other main vocal contributor Anna Prohaska is more appealing than the earlier take on Sonnet 43, it’s short and sombre and segues into ‘For Shame (Sonnet 10)’, a slightly more fairground ride of a production and less convincing for being so.
‘Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23)’ features Rufus’s sister Martha and fellow classical and pop crossover performer, the classically trained Fiora Cutler. There a dramatic recitation as intro from Helena Bonham Carter but for me things really get going when the song, a pounding, heavy, rock based piece really kicks in. As a classical music ignoramus I’d like to think this is all a bit much for some of the Deutsche Grammophon bigwigs, but this album is delivering far more range and diversity than I was expecting. This track puts me in mind of Marc Almonds collaboration with John Harle on ‘The Tyburn Tree’, there are truly two worlds clashing here, and the effect is quite thrilling and in places very impressive.
I’m not a fan of Florence (and the Machine) Welch but her track ‘When In Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Sonnet 29)’ is an enthralling 3-minute diversion with 60’s pop and folk throwback beauty. It’s followed by what is essentially Captain Kirk reciting Shakespeare. If you’ve ever heard Mr Shatner ‘singing’ any of the pop classics that he has taken on, then you’ll know what to expect. Thankfully it’s soon blasted away by Anna Prohaska’s most dramatic and enticing piece yet on ‘Th’Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame (Sonnet 129)’, which squeezes into two minutes and forty-eight seconds the absolute essence of rock opera with some real actual opera.
‘All Dessen Müd’ dramatizes things even further with an opening German recital carried above a slightly jazz tempting under bed. The music carries on in fairly schizophrenic fashion on what is the most unhinged thing on the album, and it holds attention throughout it full eight and a half minutes. Rufus’ own final vocal contribution comes next on a reprise of ‘A Woman’s Face’, it’s a fairly standard Rufus Wainwright song, in fact, more memorable than a fair few of them. It’s sung as a gentle, slow building popular song with classical overtones merely hinted at. A final spoken word (in German) offering is presented with ‘Sonnet 87’ before the album closes with Anna Prohaska again with ‘Farewell (Sonnet 87)’, an intricate yet never quite ornate opera styled piece that radiates in its own lushness.
I may have approached this with some trepidation, yet having taken it all in it is fair to say it could be my favourite rock/classical crossover yet. The mix of highbrow with rock and popular music moods is carried off with unbelievable expertise. And as a devout non Shakespearean the balance of all of the albums elements leaves nothing overpowering, in fact there a sort of ‘what did I just listen to’ bewilderment (bewonderment?) that I love. It’s just about reverential, respectful, inventive and crazy enough to make the whole thing a success.