The Juliet Letters of 1992, recorded with the Brodsky Quartet, marked Elvis Costello's first foray in the direction of classical music. But, as pianist David Murray notes here, Costello said that "this is no more my stab at 'classical music' than it is the Brodsky Quartet's first rock and roll album." The inspiration behind the songs (there are 17, plus three instrumental interludes) was a curious phenomenon that crossed Costello's field of vision: European teenagers apparently write letters addressed to Juliet Capulet, of Romeo and Juliet, at a house in Verona touted as her residence. Costello created his own "letters," using the whole notion as a slightly distanced platform from which to survey the nature of young love in an era marked by a good deal of narcissism. There is a good deal of humor -- and even an outright laugher in This Offer Is Unrepeatable (some junk mail made it into the mix) -- but the tone of the whole is probing. Musically Costello delved into harmonies that wouldn't have fit comfortably into his pop songs, but the style, unlike that of Costello's later ballet score Il sogno, was not an unfamiliar one to the singer's pop fans.
Canadian soprano Kerry-Anne Kutz recorded Costello's songs in their original form with the Abysse Quartet (they are, variously, from male, female, and indeterminate perspectives), but this version by soprano Michelle Murray and her husband David Murray, is something else again. More than just an arrangement, it is a recomposition of the work for voice and piano. David Murray adds preludes, postludes, and interludes, arguing that the "understated, almost minimalistic part writing" of the string quartet original is unsuited to piano accompaniment. This contention would come as a surprise to Schubert, many of whose best songs have very minimal accompaniments, but Murray forges ahead and alters the harmonic language of the original as well. Quoting Charles Ives to the effect that tonality should be neither required nor forbidden but instead used as appropriate, he uses the melodic lines of the original songs as bases for new accompaniments that range from limpid to fairly dissonant. The piano is quite active, and sometimes seems to compete with Costello's lyrics and thus blunt their sharp edges. Sample Dear Sweet Filthy World (track 11) on this recording and on those by Costello or Kutz, and you may find that the portrait emerges more clearly in simpler music. Against this, however, is the strong connection between the married performers here; Michelle Murray enters fully into the concept of each song. And the lack of printed texts is no problem (except perhaps for non-Anglophones), for her articulation of the words is just about flawless. The listener may wish that Costello's songs would be left alone long enough to develop into classics, but this version, which has the effect of pushing them in a more conventionally "classical" direction, may well interest singers looking for unusual contemporary repertoire -- after all, it's easier to find a pianist than a ready string quartet.