Elvis Costello's Juliet Letters were written in 1992 and recorded by the bespectacled Britisher himself, together with the Brodsky Quartet. A set of 17 songs for voice and string quartet, with a few quartet-only interludes, they had an unusual inspiration: Costello heard that a professor in Verona decided to answer some of the letters that came in to the local post office every year addressed to Juliet Capulet, of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. (Apparently European teenagers do this kind of thing instead of, or in addition to, writing to Britney Spears.) Costello came up with his own stylized "letters" and set them to music, using the idea as a platform for the exploration of young love. Musically the material lies somewhere between that of his pop albums and his Shakespearean orchestral ballet Il Sogno of 2004, a more purely "classical" work.
These songs are quite recognizably Costello's, with abundant examples of his impish humor (one of the "letters," This Offer Is Unrepeatable, is a piece of junk mail that begins with "DON'T SEND ANY MONEY") and of his ability to dissect romantic relationships. But he didn't simply set pop and rock songs to string quartet accompaniment. The phrases are more diversely shaped than those of most of Costello's pop compositions, which often rely on the resonances of pop traditions for their impact. Harmonically he uses the string quartet to find a way between classical tonality and the procedures of new wave rock, which often used a tonal center but avoided the strong tonic-dominant-subdominant emphasis of blues-based music.
The songs are economical, successful, delightful, and good candidates to outlast Il Sogno as classical music. The release of this album by Canadian soprano Kerry-Anne Kutz with the Abysse Quartet of Quebec marks a milestone in the work's existence, for the goal of every contemporary classical work is to get that coveted second performance. It is well known that composers shouldn't be given the last word on how to perform their works, and Kutz, who has sung both classical music and jazz, diverges from Costello's rather clipped interpretations. She does a good job of sounding like a teenager without being mannered about it, and she has the range to handle a song like Taking My Life in Your Hands (track 9), which remained partly in the realm of potential on the Costello recording. A disc highly recommended not only for Costello fans, but for any soprano in search of unusual repertoire -- these songs just might be strong enough to take on a vibrant existence independent of Elvis Costello.