Burt Bacharach Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
As comforting as shepherd's pie, Burt Bacharach's music is in the limousine class when it comes to easy-listening. It was appropriate that his two shows on Friday and Saturday were bedded in the strings and brass of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who played with cool professionalism. The imported American rhythm section sounded a bit bright and noisy for some of the tunes, a disco-fied beat taking over here and there, and one might have wished for the soft swish of brushes on snares and a resinous upright bass. But this is how Burt must like his music to sound. He was regally in control of the proceedings, a wiry, silver-haired whippet of a man, picking up a beat from the piano or motioning the opposing forces of the orchestra into action with a seemingly combative conducting style. He is a showman who likes to be involved. When he sang, which was surprisingly often given that his voice is the kind of mossy croak that most composers seem to have been born with, he manhandled some of Hal David's most prized lyrics. It didn't matter, because it was an enjoyable idiosyncrasy in an otherwise blandly charming performance.

Several of the most famous songs were tossed away in the form of medleys, which is the kind of thing one can get away with when there's so much gold in the archive. Bacharach's choice of featured tunes was sometimes surprising. He had a strong quartet of female singers to handle most of the principal lyrics, but he seemed to enjoy some of the instrumental pieces even more, and it highlighted the bizarre inconsistency in his work. The score of Casino Royal may have included "The Look of Love", one of his loveliest melodies, but it also contained a piece of tack called "Bond Street". Burt gave us both of them.

The great Bacharach is squarely within the material he wrote in the early- to-middle Sixties, when he and David seemed effortlessly to hit a succession of peaks. Some of the songs were almost too sophisticated to succeed. The banal sentiments of "Wives and Lovers" are transcended by the sublime melody, the controlled drama of "Anyone Who Had a Heart" is measured against a curious construction which seems to start the song in the middle. "Alfie", which Bacharach acknowledged as one of his favourites, unspools as a single flowing line. Hearing these impeccably shaped pieces of craftsmanship, one after another, underlined how Bacharach bridged the old-school professionalism of Tin Pan Alley with the hook-bound direction of modern pop.

Trouble is, he couldn't sustain that level of excellence. There is a country mile between the vintage Burt and the likes of the ghastly "Arthur's Theme" or the California pabulum of "Heartline", even if he doesn't profess to hear the difference. When the orchestra tackled the most recent material, the otherwise adoring audience grew more muted in their applause. Burt can't help it: he's a nostalgia merchant. But at least he won't die penniless. He spent a lot of the show telling us about his racehorses.