Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Essence of Drollery

"Music has always been closely linked to destiny and personal tragedy,” Max Raabe said to introduce a song, pausing a moment. “Who cares? As long as it doesn't affect you personally. This is a song you might recognize from the talking pictures."

Raabe and the Palast Orchester then proceeded to play "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" Three members of the band voiced the parts of the pigs, which was a little unusual, since Raabe did most of the singing throughout the evening. The audience was much amused.

I knew going in that I would see a remarkable singer backed by a first-rate band. But the surprise of the evening was that Raabe was funny. Make that droll. The essence of drollery. This is no mean feat in one's second language.

He didn't tell jokes. Rather, he wryly described the song the band had just played, or was going to play, and sometimes described the lyrics in English if the song was German. One German song, he said, was about a cactus that falls off a window ledge onto a passing neighbor. "This is still a popular song in Germany," Raabe said. "Because we find the circumstance funny."

To introduce a love song: "Men and women are different creatures. Yet sometimes, the female allows the male to reside in the same domicile. He is useful for opening champagne bottles..."

Yet the show was much more than comedy. From a review by Anthony Tommasini of Raabe's show at Carnegie Hall last year, a spot-on assessment of the singer and the orchestra: "Mr. Raabe maintains a detached attitude about the matter. In his own way he is a tenderly expressive singer with a light baritone voice, though, like Fred Astaire, he can croon his way to tenorial highs or dip to playfully earthy basso lows. But there is not a trace of sentimentality in his singing, not a slice of ham, even when he is having fun. When Mr. Raabe, backed by the musicians playing the band’s harmonically rich, casually jazzy and inventive arrangements, performs a breezy romantic song like the 1929 'Wenn du von mir fortgehst' by Hans May and Kurt Schwabach, it comes across as affecting and piercingly true."

Detached indeed. When he wasn't singing, Raabe leaned against the piano -- practically draped himself on the piano -- calmly waiting for his lines. Then he'd amble up to the 1930-style microphone, and out came his mellifluous voice, which has been described as a "honey baritone" for good reason. This is another good sampler, including bits of some of the songs he did at the Paramount.


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