Mercy and Grand/I Fagiolini, Spitalfields Winter Festival (4/5, 5/5)


Ever since his elaboration of a tramp’s rendition of ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’, Gavin Bryars has been a master of the re-use of what one might call ‘musiques trouvees’, sometimes ranging as far as Japanese gagaku.

Tom Waits re-used ‘Jesus’ Blood’: Bryars has now returned the compliment, arranging some Waits standards with the aid of his ‘circus band’ including musical saw, harmonium, trumpet-violin, and – as performed in Shoreditch Church – the versatile mezzo of Jessica Walker.

‘Mercy and Grand: the Tom Waits project’ brings together songs Waits has made his own, plus some Kurt Well, a sea shanty, a Nino Rota melody, and a couple of Gypsy tangos, with James Holmes and violinist Joe Townsend assisting with the arrangements. This unusual melange works a treat. Walker may be primarily an opera singer, but her cabaret instinct is wonderfully sure: she took command of the proceedings from the moment she sauntered up the aisle, and held us riveted from the outset with ‘Little Drop of Poison’. Her warm clean sound may be a million miles from Waits’s growl, but she evoked wintry pathos with ‘Alice’ and ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ just as effectively; Weill’s ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ never sounded more bleak. The instrumental numbers were arresting, but for the wrong reason: it was a terrible shame to spoil this brilliantly-conceived show with amplification so primitive that one never knew which sounds were intended, and which were accidental atmospherics.

Re-encountering the a cappella group I Fagiolini after a ten-year break, I was astonished at how richly they have embellished their act. Their first number was a musical evocation of a German belfry, accompanied by appropriate gestures; their second – a medieval French song about birds mating in spring - was an extraordinary piece of musical clowning. The speed of the mini-dramas they extracted from Janequin’s verses was equalled by their physical contortions and their immaculate singing. 

Britten’s ‘Sacred and Profane’ got marvellously nimble treatment, its Anglo-Saxon grotesquerie given uncannily accurate musical shape. But I Fagiolini’s centre-piece was a performance of Monteverdi’s ‘Incenerite spoglie’ –‘incinerated remains’ – whose majestic beauty took the breath away. This madrigal of mourning had been composed in honour of the young singer who had premiered the lost ‘Arianna’, and here, every phrase seared the soul.