The Noël Coward Songbook
CD Number: EMI Classics 7243 4 76784 2 4
Though Noël Coward certainly has his devoted American fans, his songs have seldom been acclaimed in the U.S. to the extent of those of Cole Porter. The comparison is clichéd but inevitable, considering that both of these near-contemporaries are celebrated for the brilliance of their lyrics, the elegance of their melodies, the music-hall or Broadway sauciness that occasionally steps aside for moody sentiment. Some of us may still prefer Porter on all these counts, but Coward, far more than his American counterpart, was an important performer — for many, the performer — of his own songs, with his urbane, unbeautiful voice. What happens when a tenor for whom the word "mellifluous" might have been invented records such songs? The evidence is on Ian Bostridge's The Noël Coward Songbook, first released in 2002, though evidently newly reissued by EMI (my disk is © 2005 at any rate).
Anyone who has heard Bostridge's voice knows how distinctive it is, whether he is singing Schubert or Vaughan Williams. If it is possible for a voice to sound slightly hollow in a good way, the demonstration is there in Bostridge's haunting timbre, coupled with sensitivity to the color of words and clarity of enunciation. On the Coward disk he brings warmth to low notes and can rise to head tones that are not mere crooning or hooty falsetto. Certainly such a voice and delivery are utterly different from what Coward himself brought to these songs (all but two of the CD's 19 written for particular shows). At least one reviewer, David Patrick Stearns for Andante.com, was veritably outraged by the tenor's traversal, claiming that "In songs like 'Twentieth Century Blues' Bostridge brings affectation to unlistenably bizarre levels." Perhaps because I was just discovering these songs, I felt delight rather than outrage. Nor could I hear a monotony of delivery in the case of "I Travel Alone": Stearns hears only a note of "pathos," which reduces the song to "an embarrassing expression of self-pity," while I heard more swagger and nonchalance, and not just in lines like "Free from love's illusion, my heart is my own." Perhaps Bostridge's attention to the sheer beauty of practically every note projects an air of narcissism, but that seems like a perfectly valid interpretation of the lyrics.
EMI's generous selection covers only songs of the 1920s and '30s, arranged chronologically except for the 1934 "I'll Travel Alone," placed at the beginning of the recital as Coward's "personal anthem," according to Bostridge's program note. The piano arrangements by Corin Buckeridge were made, as far as I can tell from the notes, especially for Bostridge and Jeffrey Tate (better known as a conductor but an able pianist here). Stearns found the arrangements unidiomatic, but not knowing other versions, whether for piano or pit orchestra, I found them lively and engaging, while almost always keeping to a supporting role.
Here I must confess that this review is colored by my having just heard Bostridge sing a number of these songs live, in a recital at the rotunda-like Kleine Zaal of Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. Several observations are in order.
Whether because of the excellent acoustics, the clearly thrilled audience, the vigorous piano accompaniment of Bostridge's frequent collaborator Julius Drake, or longer familiarity with the songs, Bostridge's renditions were even better than on the CD, seemingly more effortless in delivery and splendid in voice. That said, several performances on the disc-for example, of "Zigeuner" and "The Dream is Over" — are on that high level.
The live recital was not purely Coward. In his CD booklet Bostridge finds Coward comparable not only to Cole Porter but also to the Kurt Weill of The Threepenny Opera. The proof of that pudding was the recital: a suite of Coward followed by several numbers, in German, from The 3PO; then after the intermission, more Coward, followed by five Porter songs, with two more Coward songs to round off the program. (These last were evidently meant to serve as encores, but the cheering Dutch audience kept bringing the performers back until they repeated Porter's "Just One of Those Things.") One can only hope that Bostridge will record his mordant yet beautiful "Solomon's Song" and "Ballad of Pleasant Living" and elegant "Night and Day."
Sophie Daneman, who joins Bostridge in four duets on the CD, was an equal partner in the live recital, featured not only in the Coward duets (notably the silly but ingratiating "A Room with a View" and "Something to Do with Spring" as well as more romantic numbers) but in ones by Weill and Porter, plus several solos, including Coward songs intended for female voice (e.g., "Matelot"), a devastating "Barbara Song" (Polly Peachum's "No and Yes" song from 3PO), and a delightful rendition of Porter's jokey "Tale of the Oyster." The impression the CD gives of a fine talent — a rich voice in tune with the idiom of the popular stage — was more than confirmed by the live performance. Again, one hopes for a recording.
The spirit of the evening was certainly not harmed-nor were the voices-by a stagehand's popping a bottle of champagne for the performers at the start of the second half. The pair took turns lounging on furniture set up to suggest a drawing room with piano, sipping when the other stood and sang. The CD will provide no such visual pleasure, but what is to prevent the listener from having a chilled bottle on hand?