As a singer Hildegard Knef is a great actress. Now, before I go any further let’s be clear – there’s not a shred of disrespect intended in that statement. It’s just that in a world where autotune and all those other endless levels of digital manipulation can clean, correct, condition, tumble dry and neatly fold up the most average of singers it’s a pleasant shock to hear singing which really tells a story and sounds, well, alive…
The eighteen tracks on this wonderful compilation are as compelling a testament to the idea of voice as expression of personality as you are likely to hear. Quite simply, although the “voice of Berlin” died in 2002 she remains large as life in this music.
She’s there, playful, cheeky, cynical in Too Bad, the first of 12 songs culled from 1969’s Love For Sale, afloat a thrilling cocktail of woodwinds, brass and itchy latin rimshots arranged by the great Kurt Edlehagen, dismissing a lover with a wry giggle and shrug of the shoulders…”so now you’ve joined the club with all the others, too bad!” A moment later she’s dark in a cafe, drinking another coffee, waiting for another train. I Travel Alone boasts the singer and despite the lyric’s defiant independence her smoky quiver betrays a big hurt. That hurt whisper is never too far round the corner. “Someday he’ll come along” she tries to tell herself, The Man I Love and in the middle of that lush warm arrangement you know she’s resigned to loneliness.
The actress in Knef is never far from the surface, a reading of Brecht / Weill / Blitzstein’s Mack The Knife displaying an inch perfect understanding of that famous song’s constantly modulating drama, helped in this case by a menacing, heavily compressed vocal sound, bright and breathy, right next to your ears. Like Mack, always close, in the shadow, waiting for his chance. Another dramatic vocal performance comes in the beautiful Time Will Say Nothing, based on If I Could Tell You by the great English poet W.H. Auden. Against rippling piano, pulsing contrabass and shimmering Edlehagen strings we can see the singer, centre stage in spotlight, imagining a world before her, watching it turn, leaves decaying, lions and soldiers running from a make believe battlefield. Suddenly she’s kicking off shoes, lighting up a Marlboro and pouring another gin for an hilarious, wisecracking take on The Lady Is A Tramp. Highlights of this particular romp include ”She dines in Frankfurt on sausage and kraut” ( to which Knef adds a head shaking, disbelieving “Gott”! ) and “reads Henry Miller, understands every line” followed by a devilish whoop, illustrating the fact that Hilde herself was indeed aquainted with Mr Miller. One can actually visualise her goofy, tipsy-aunt-at-Christmas grin on the pay off “zet’s why ze lady is a tremp”!
There she is on a street corner at midnight among the garbage cans and night owls – Love For Sale, from that great album of the same name, tough, frank, nothing you can say will move me. Suddenly she’s vulnerable, the unsure girl who’s in love with you, constantly heading for another love affair.
“All the world’s a stage and the people in it, merely players” announces Knef as the opening line of I Will Be The Singer and the stage she struts as a singer is the natural habitat of studio musicians, arrangers and producers, the unsung heroes who help make that stage seem real. The performances on these recordings are absolutely exceptional from start to finish, fat picked Fender bass, tight and funky electric guitar, razor sharp drum sounds and drummers who know how to cook, when to cook and what to cook. Trumpet players, flute players driving Volkswagen Beetles, sax players, a little guy with a bass clarinet in a checked jacket turning up for work, picking up the charts and making magic happen in the air. Air conducted by Georg Neumann U47 microphones, live reverb chambers, Altec limiters, wide magnetic tape, the smell of electricity. In the middle of it the producer – “try just one more Hilde, a little more in time, a little more in tune”. Hildegard doing it again, just the same, singular, determined, undisciplined and wonderful.
When we get to Holiday Time an ultra funky, ultra ahead of the game rap with brilliantly perceptive lyrical comments on the world’s chaos written by Knef herself and featuring a fantastically focussed vocal performance, some brave producer (actually her husband David Cameron) has managed to get her double tracked on the chorus, a technological advance which seems like massive innovation in the context of her usual approach to delivering studio vocals. This little known song appeared in English for the first time on the B Side of Christina, Knef’s fabulous 1971 tribute to her own daughter.
I’m imagining Hildegard at home, playing with her child, maybe pouring a drink, talking to friends on the telephone, arguing with lovers, walking in the park, reading a script, running the many, varied and colourful events of her life through her head. It’s all there in the voice.
David Scott 2007