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Arts: Life is a cabaret

Nick Kimberley listens to Ute Lemper, the Berlin spice girl
Even if we've neither read Christopher Isherwood, nor seen Liza Minnelli in that film, the words "Berlin Cabaret" conjure up a flickering parade of images that, blurring and fading as we try to bring them into focus, nevertheless seem to embody an era. Ute Lemper exploits this false nostalgia in her publicity, but fortunately there's more to her talent than a fleeting resemblance to chanteuses past.

She's a thoroughly modern microphone singer, using the voice in ways that only the mike allows us to appreciate. The Queen Elizabeth Hall may not be echt kabarettisch but it's small enough to bring her and us close together, surely right for a programme of "Berlin Cabaret Songs". That's also the title of Lemper's latest CD, but this was more than mere promotion. The songs have been arranged by Robert Ziegler, whose Matrix Ensemble (here, a brassy septet) provided Lemper's accompaniment. Ziegler, like Lemper, remains faithful to the Zeitgeist without necessarily striving for period instrument authenticity. That would, in any case, be hard to achieve, as much of the work of composers such as Spoliansky and Hollaender survives only in fragments.

Although spirited, Lemper's CD performances of this material are, if not subdued, then certainly contained. If she can see the whites of her audience's eyes, she opens up, snarling, pouting, lisping and rasping with infectious glee. She sits pertly on a stool or prowls the stage, squats at its edge, descends into the audience to inflict excruciating embarrassment on those lucky or unlucky enough to attract her attention. She is, in a word, a performer, surviving on the adrenalin of communication.

That's one reason why she chose to sing many of these songs in Jeremy Lawrence's highly spiced translations. Some will question their authenticity, but an art-form as voracious as Weimar cabaret must itself have made free with the good tunes of the day. And if something is lost in translation, something is also gained: as Lemper said, "It's fun to be understood." To insist on singing them in German would be to varnish them in protective sepia, and as she also suggested, "These issues are still delicate to touch."

What remains delicate is the songs' willingness to talk about sex, money and corruption with an uncomplicated wit, which Lemper clearly relishes, sometimes perhaps to excess, so that occasionally we might wish she would sing the songs straight, un-Lemperised. Was the lisp on "thex" in "Sex- Appeal" rather overdone? Was she too willing to pull this or that song out of shape for the sake of a passing inflection? And then again a nasal quality in the voice, which the mike emphasises, engenders a crooning tone that is sometimes intrusive.

Still, it's an immensely characterful and flexible voice, precisely the kind of voice contemporary composers might usefully exploit. Her trips to her country's past are vibrant and valuable, but Lemper is a modern performer, and music that's a little more modern should fit her comfortably. So far only Michael Nyman has taken advantage: why aren't others queuing up?

Further performances at the Salisbury Festival, 7 June (01722 323888) and Cheltenham Festival, 18 July (01242 521621)