Pablo Neruda, said Ute Lemper, premiering her new settings of his poems, was a “poet, politician, diplomat”. Politics would be natural territory for the German singer best known for her renderings of Weimar cabaret. But this performance centred around the love poems that Neruda wrote late in his life, after returning to Chile from decades of exile. Like a lovestruck Prospero, he holed up in an island retreat, Isla Negra, with his wife Matilde.
Lemper’s backing – bandoneon, piano, double bass, guitar, violin and percussion – was close to the classic tango line-up, and the music had tango’s ability to sweep up into emotion or fall away and highlight the tiniest detail.
Setting poems to music is harder than it sounds. Poetry at its best – and Neruda, his Nobel Prize notwithstanding, is a first-rate poet – contains its own music. Lemper acknowledged the difficulty. Typically, songs would begin with her reciting the kernel of the poem in English over a flourish of guitar or bandoneon, then singing the verses in the original Spanish or sometimes (in a nod to Neruda’s days as ambassador to Paris) in French. Then the rhythm or the tonality would provide the impetus for her to take off into wordless vocalisation. Winds and tides crashed around the “island of stone and moss”.
“If You Forget Me” marked a point of departure: a walking bassline from the double bass with brushed drums and blues phrases on the guitar, with Lemper slurry and American-accented. Later she imitated a trumpet line, pursing her lips and presenting a stark silhouette.
At the end came “‘The Saddest Poem’: number twenty”. The music was clear piano. “I don’t love him,” she sang, switching the original sexes, “but” – with a finely judged emphasis on the consonant – “how I loved him.” And then, as the music shrank to stillness: “These are the last lines I will write for him.” All that remained was a fragmented coda, band more demented than joyous, Lemper barking and trilling.
For an encore, she went back to German and delivered a reading of Brecht and Weill’s “Bilbao” – wrists flapping like Lotte Lenya – that was the polar opposite of the Neruda: playful, theatrical, tinged with schmaltz then gutturally undercut.