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Classical 101

Wandering with Sting through Classical Music

ONE AUDIO PIECE   We all know Sting as the vocalist who, in the 1980s, warbled about packing lemmings into shining metal boxes and hoping that the Russians loved their children. Since leaving The Police lo these many years ago (but for the band's reunion tour), Sting's musical complexion has taken on a rich texture, and in recent years his musical interests have extended into the world of classical music, most notably with his 2006 recording of Dowland songs, Songs from the Labyrinth, with lutenist Edin Karamazov. Karamazov has partnered again with Sting and with other musicians the likes of Renee Fleming and Andreas Scholl on a new recording, The Lute Is a Song, which showcases classical music from Purcell to Bach and more colloquial works like an old Macedonian folk song and a new song, "Alone with my thoughts this evening," by Sting himself. Around the time of the release of Songs from the Labyrinth, Sting marketed himself as a modern-day troubadour, one of those poet-musicians who, in the Middle Ages, sang their poems about beauty and love to the accompaniment of their own lute-like instruments. In a very broad sense, this tradition extends through the love-burdened lute song of Dowland right down to the love-song tradition of contemporary popular music.  In "Alone with my thoughts this evening," Sting again places himself in the troubadour tradition, this time also filling the role of composer (though not the role of accompanist, which Karamazov fills on his archlute). The result is a song that appeals to our latter-day ears, while also conjuring the otherworldliness of ages past. The text is rich with simple yet lovely imagery: the poet wonders if he could make his beloved his own, then sees himself and his beloved in the forms of two birds lifting off from the branch of a sycamore tree). The music allows the text to play out unhurried, floating on the wings of ancient-sounding modality into an airy vista of infinity. Here's some of the first strophe: [audio:sting_alone.mp3] So is this popular music, or is this classical music in a neo-Dowland vein? I suspect Sting would like it to be heard as both, as he builds a career as a crossover artist. If there were any doubt about the latter ambition, his recent recording If On a Winter's Night. . . dispels it. This recording is Sting's answer to Schubert's Winterreise and his foray into the Lieder repertory.  The CD's packaging shows a bearded, dark-coated Sting tromping through the snows of a forest clearing, a wanderer in bleak mid-winter, just as the protagonist of Schubert's Winterreise song cycle wanders through the bleak landscape of his own life. The Norwegian baritone Njal Sparbo employed a virtually identical strategy for the cover art (pictured at right) of his 1996 recording of Winterreise. Looking at the contents of If On a Winter's Night . . ., you might think the Schubert comparison ends there. The CD  - out just in time for the holiday season - has such historic Christmastime favorites as "There Is No Rose of Such Virtue" and "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming" in attractive, today-sounding arrangements. But scroll down to the track entitled "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and you'll be thrust back into Schubert's wintry world. As its title suggests, this track is, in fact, Sting's English-language performance of "Der Leiermann," the last song of Schubert's Winterreise, which Sting sings to the accompaniment of an accordion. The performance contains all of the vowel stretching (pronouncing "snow" like "snowah," singing "man" like "mwan", etc.) and vocal breathiness that are now hallmarks of Sting's work, and it lacks a certain emotional depth. Still, it's a performance of Schubert on a holiday recording by Sting, which means Schubert's song is alive and well. So maybe this is as good as it gets. Now that Sting has taken Schubert into the mainstream, I'm curious to see what will happen to Schubert and what other classical repertory Sting will tackle next. How about Schumann's Dichterliebe?  Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs?  Maybe an opera role or two?  I'm betting on Peter Grimes . . . .