Labour of love

Sonnets - Lisa Jardine gets in the mood for Valentine's Day with the Bard

The works of Shakespeare used to be seen as a source for deep moral insights about ourselves. Whatever values and beliefs were quintessentially "English" were (so we were taught) to be found enshrined in his golden verse. Today, apparently, Shakespeare's has become the pop-cultural voice of smouldering teenage passion - Baz Luhrmann's cult youth film Romeo & Juliet, with Leonardo DiCaprio as the epitome of first love, followed by Miramax's box-office hit Shakespeare in Love, with Joseph Fiennes as Will, a matinee idol, in pursuit of a winsomely androgynous Gwyneth Paltrow.

On the crest of the wave of such sentimentality comes a new CD of Shakespeare sonnets, sung and spoken by a star-studded cast of theatre luvvies and assorted pop stars. The album was released for Valentine's Day and billed as a fundraiser for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (Rada). Its title, When Love Speaks, is appropriately lifted from a play full of self-indulgent love talk, Love's Labour's Lost:

"And when Love speaks the voice of all the gods

Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony . . ."

So is this just another collection of saccharine sentiments for a dumbed-down audience? Actually, no. This is a CD that deserves to become a bestseller, and yet which, remarkably, neither patronises the listener nor fudges the serious significance of Shakespeare's poetry.

The glittering cast list suggests that the composer Michael Kamen and the actor Alan Rickman did indeed self-consciously set out to draw on the success of earlier "popular" Shakespeare products. Joseph Fiennes opens and closes the CD with the "dream" lines from The Tempest: "We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep." Des'ree, the soul singer whose performance of "Kissing You" was a high point of Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet, features here with her own setting of Portia's "quality of mercy" speech from The Merchant of Venice.

The whole thing is packaged, chocolate box-style, as a delightfully bound book, carefully designed to look like one of the volumes in another cinematic homage to the Bard, Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books. The endpapers are thick with velvety crimson rose petals, the rose-petal-scattered CD in its own rose-petalled slip cover, tucked inside the back cover. It does not take the listener long, however, to discover that When Love Speaks is much more than a well-seized marketing opportunity. Almost all its cameo performances are of lasting value, and some are truly memorable.

Track 2, for instance, gives us Annie Lennox with a setting of Marlowe's "Live with me and be my Love" - compelling and distinctively hers. Track 52, Bryan Ferry's rendering of Michael Kamen's setting of Sonnet 18, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?", already has an absolutely classic sound to it - pure Roxy Music, infused with a retro-ballad feeling, while perfectly judging the weight and timbre of the words in Shakespeare's poem. Ladysmith Black Mambazo harmonise and syncopate Sonnet 8 ("Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly?"). And with Travis-style pathos, Rufus Wainwright, the rising rock star, sings an eerily compelling version of Sonnet 29: "When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,/I all alone beweep my outcast state".

The musical items are complemented by some distinguished spoken performances, too. Fiona Shaw's Sonnet 61 is an engaged and engaging meditation on jealousy ("For thee watch I whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,/From me far off, with others all too near"). Ralph Fiennes's Sonnet 129 is a crescendoing catalogue of lust ("Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame/Is lust in action"). Kenneth Branagh offers a convincing, upbeat and confident rendering of Sonnet 30, while Tom Courtenay manages to give a gritty, acerbic edge to Sonnet 56.

What gives this CD its charm, and has had me, I confess, listening to it again and again, is that the celebrities assembled on it show such obvious respect for the words they speak or sing. So each performer stands back enough to allow the words of their sonnet to breathe - without its becoming simply an occasion for showing off, a "star vehicle" - allowing us to listen and appreciate, and wonder who allocated the sonnets with such wicked precision to suit the temperament of each artist?

When Love Speaks makes its bid for a place in contemporary "youth culture" uncompromisingly and without condescension. Each of its contributors struts his or her stuff with all the confidence and panache of their classic Rada training. Nowhere is it implied that the sentiments expressed might be difficult, nor is the production sugared with gratuitous popular backing or coyly modernised idioms. The added saxophone on the lute song by John Dowland is discreet; Des'ree carries off Portia's courtroom speech with deft confidence. She arrests our all-too-modern attention without losing the intensity and resonance of the original - this is simply Shakespeare performance at its best.

Kamen and Rickman have apparently pulled off the remarkable feat of producing a CD that may well become a Shakespeare classic . . . just in time for Valentine's Day.

When Love Speaks is released by EMI Classics and is in the top 25 of the pop charts

Lisa Jardine is chair of the Booker Prize jury this year