AKRON, Ohio — When Ute Lemper sings the revolutionary and decadent songs of the Weimar Republic, she doesn’t think of them as relics of the past. Instead, these 1919-33 songs from the European songbook are living, breathing works of art that resonate in her world today.
The German-born chanteuse, 48, is passionate about exploring the dark creative past of her homeland through the vibrant art and politics of musicians who were prolific before World War II but then forced into exile from Nazi Germany.
“I cannot stress enough my life’s journey exploring repertoire inspired by art of the Weimar Republic,” said Lemper, a student of history and politics who calls herself an ambassador to this music.
She said a revival of interest in the music began in 1987, the year her first album of Kurt Weill works came out.
“Suddenly, you looked again at the fate of all these Jewish people who were involved with the cultural revolution in those years in Germany and then had to emigrate and (were a) little bit diluted with their art into other cultures,” Lemper said of composers such as the popular Weill.
Her concert is rooted in the music and stories of composer Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht during the Weimar years, continuing with the dark compositions of Hanns Eisler during his exile from Nazi Germany.
Lemper, who said she has always wanted to record with a string quartet, said it was both a joy and a marathon to record this collection of songs just over three weeks ago with the Vogler Quartet, also from Germany. The artists worked intensively until 4 a.m. for three days in a row at a concert church in Neu Brandenburg, Germany. The recording was done in the old classical recording style, with everyone required to perform live — with no cutting in or cutting out or touch-ups done later.
“It’s beautiful because it’s not totally perfect but it’s alive,” she said of the recording, called “Paris Days, Berlin Nights.” It was released Tuesday by Steinway & Sons.
The Vogler Quartet, founded in East Berlin in 1984, joins Lemper on a 10-city North American tour that begans at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Monday.
Lemper is from West Germany and the Voglers are from East Germany — musicians from the same generation who were teens during the Cold War. Lemper’s background in dance and theater led her to an early career in musical theater in Europe and on Broadway. The Voglers’ career was launched after winning the Evian International String Quartet Competition in France in 1985.
Lemper, who is now based in New York, is married to American Todd Turkisher, a percussionist and bass player who formerly performed with her on tour and has produced some of her albums. He now holds down the home fort for the couple’s four children: a teenage son and daughter, a 6-year-old son and a 5-month-old baby. Lemper is able to tour thanks to a support system that includes the help of extended family, a nanny and an au pair.
“The show keeps running without me home,” Lemper said.
Performing with the string quartet brings a new dimension to the work of this chanteuse.
“The string quartet itself brings it a little bit away from the popular sound of some of these songs,” she said. “It just brings out the finest, more psychological side of the songs.”
The artists perform with clarinetist Stefan Malzew, who’s also the musical arranger and pianist and even adds color with a little bit of accordion playing.
Lemper said the “most fabulous” arrangements in the concert that serve as centerpieces on the recording are three by East German composer Eisler. He wrote these dark pieces, translated to mean “The Trench,” “The Waterwheel” and “On the Suicide,” in the 1930s as statements of opposition to the Nazis.
“This composer is from the East, so I think the arranger could connect very strongly with it, and it’s so finely executed by the Voglers,” Lemper said.
Lemper’s core repertoire remains in the Weimar period. But unlike the nostalgic performances of Max Raabe, Lemper doesn’t try to keep the music in its authentic, historical context. She strives to make the work contemporary with political jokes and musical interpretations.
“My mission is to drag it always into the future,” she said.