In This Lonely Town

Andrianna Smela and her accompanist Maria Dessena are classically trained musicians playing cabaret music, and my main gripe with this programme of the songs of Kurt Weill and other artists is that it shows. Although they claim to have turned their back on Bach and Mozart to embrace a more popular tradition, they sound guilty about it, on the verge of nervous giggles, as though what they're doing is naughty and wrong.The awkward, embarrassed banter that follows a Portishead cover, one of two modern pop songs, is emblematic – Smela clearly has a hierarchy of musical forms, and seems unable to fully embrace anything more popular than Schoenberg. Her vocal delivery is probably classically accurate – I can't judge technically, but don't think it's important here – but it's very strident, a glass-cracking operatic belt which risks making listeners wince and recoil. My understanding was that Brecht's lyrics for Weill were meant to be sung simply, part of a popular cabaret tradition aimed at the common man; but this kind of shrill, stiff delivery sees overly keen to claim it for high art, a recategorisation that these songs and others by Piaf and the modern American composer William Bolcom could comfortably do without.It's undoubtedly competent and the material is strong enough to be worth hearing (though in the case of Piaf, heavy vibrato impeded diction and thus any ability to follow a narrative), but to be honest, In This Lonely Town's secret weapon is Smela's silence – Dessana's rendition of a Bjork tango was engaging and affecting, making good use of a tender, flexible voice. Maybe if they shared vocal duties more often this would be a more varied and less abrasive, stiffly classical set of readings of what at heart are great, informal popular songs.

Reviews by Richard O'Brien

The Blurb

Twenties Berlin and Paris - in Edinburgh! New Yorkers Andrianna Smela and Maria Dessena deliver passionate and captivating interpretations of cabaret songs and musical theatre by Kurt Weill, Edith Piaf, William Bolcom and more.