Birgit Minichmayr captures the imagination and holds centre-stage on ‘As An Unperfect Actor: Nine Sonnets by William Shakespeare’. This won’t come as a surprise to people in the German-speaking world, where the Austrian actor is well-known from countless appearances on TV and a substantial filmography. Perhaps equally unsurprising is the deep experience she can bring to Shakespeare: as an ensemble member of the Burgtheater company in Vienna, she has repeatedly lived out the searingly dramatic lives of the Bard’s characters, notably the daemonic anger of Lady Macbeth, the sadness of Ophelia and even the uncomfortable truths of the Fool in King Lear.
What might be more of a surprise, however, is the exhilarating musicality she shows on this, her first complete album as a vocalist. One could have predicted the crystal clarity, meaning and intent in her words - the desolation in her voice in “the very birds are mute... the leaves look pale” in Sonnet 97, for example. And yet there is more, much more, not least Minichmayr’s uncannily instinct to find artful and felicitous ways to shape musical phrases.
Composer/ pianist Bernd Lhotzky has provided a wonderful array of musical contexts. As Minichmayr says: “He got so deep into the meaning of each sonnet, his music made it different every time. And we talked a lot about the colour, the meaning of each poem.” The opening track, ‘My Mistress’ Eyes (Sonnet 130)’ is a masterfully deft piece of gender-fluid irony. In the poem, a man is describing possibly the ugliest woman he has ever seen - while also declaring that she is the one he loves. Lhotzky gives us an acerbic version in that most male-led of dances, the tango, complete with bandoneon, in which the words are sung by... a woman. Minichmayr then gives a masterclass in how to end a song as she hits, holds and nails the words “false compare” with triumphant fearlessness.
Throughout the course of the album, we are magically transported to new musical and emotional places. As Minichmayr says: “Through singing, through just doing it, I was able to find deep love, or deep sadness. I was really touched by it.” One of the secrets to this album’s success is Lhotzky’s wish to find melodies which have a certain ease and straightforwardness about them. He says that he approaches all music - whether he is listening to it or writing it - with one simple and direct question: “What story is this telling me?” Lhotzky is known for his work in the field of early jazz, but the range here is far broader, with allusions to such examples of fine songwriting as Brassens, Robert Plant and James Taylor.
LP pressed on 140g black vinyl.
My Mistress’ Eyes (Sonnet No. 130)
When In Disgrace (Sonnet No. 29)
Tired With All These (Sonnet No. 66)
When Most I Wink (Sonnet No. 43)
Sin Of Self-Love (Sonnet No. 62)
As An Unperfect Actor (Sonnet No. 23)
Mine Eye Hath Played The Painter (Sonnet No. 24) Let Me Not To The Marriage Of True Minds (Sonnet No. 116)
How Like A Winter (Sonnet No. 97)