Melange of emotions

Music: MELTDOWN; South Bank, London

A glance through the programme for Elvis Costello's "Meltdown" programme suggests that the world's music may indeed melt into an amorphous blob, like a burnt-out candle. New Orleans brass band, Qawwali from Pakistan, Deborah Harry and Shostakovich, Looney Tunes and Haydn: is this imaginative bricolage or haphazard eclecticism?

Certainly five hours spent in three concerts on Sunday produced a melange of euphoria, glazed indifference and hyperstimulation. In the Purcell Room, the Composers Ensemble, conducted by Diego Masson, crammed a dozen works into 45 minutes, no pause, no applause, little contact between performers and audience. It wasn't at all that the performances were bad, although Mary Wiegold sounded tense in Brahms's "Es traumte mir", and Costello's rendition of Ray Davies's "Waterloo Sunset" was rather perfunctory. What sucked the life from the programme was the unwillingness to concede that performance is about communication.

An hour later, Costello took the stage in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the difference was immediately apparent: here is a performer who thrives on an audience. Costello announced that this was his second "Meltdown" appearance, after Friday's show with the Jazz Passengers: apparently he didn't count singing with the Composers Ensemble. Here he sang mostly his own songs, accompanied first by his skiffley guitar; by Bill Frisell; then by Steve Nieve on the piano; and finally by the close harmony of gospel veterans the Fairfield Four: in all, some two hours of singing.

Cracked and cranky, the Costello voice is wonderfully expressive as it wades through the bitterly vengeful paranoia of his songwriting persona. Yet he needs a solidly tuneful frame on which to stretch out. His own guitar responded immediately to every rhythmic eccentricity; and his tortured phrasing was well matched by Nieve's piano, all big Romantic chords and expansive flourishes. With Frisell on guitar, things fell apart, the tune at the centre could not hold. Frisell mixed Sixties twangy guitar with a jazzer's phrasing, but it all seemed tentative and precious. In the meantime the Fairfield Four, dressed in a remarkable combination of dungarees and dinner jackets, gave a spellbinding survey of 50 years of black vocal styles, from crisp jubilee through hoarse shouting to syrupy doo-wop. They promised to turn the hall into the Queen Elizabeth First Baptist Church, and they succeeded.

Then it was back to the Purcell Room for more from the Composers Ensemble. It was not too disturbing that half the programme had gone already, but there was more life than in the early evening show. Good heavens, the audience even applauded. Composers had been asked to write an arrangement of a favourite song: Thomas Ades turned inside out the nutty sound of Madness's "Cardiac Arrest", and Carl Vine made Richard Rodgers's "There is Nothing Like a Dame" sound like something George Martin provided for the Beatles. It might have been interesting to reverse the formula, to hear, for example, what Costello's ravaged tones might have made of Schubert's "Erlkonig".

A few days earlier, as part of the Spitalfields Festival, Michael Chance and Fretwork performed Costello's "Put Away Forbidden Playthings", composed for them. It was fascinating to hear Chance's stark falsetto phrase words in which it was still possible to discern the composer's gnarled voice, and with swooning viol accompaniment this has the makings of a palpable hit. After singing with Fretwork, Chance then gave a solo recital accompanied by the piano of Julius Drake. Counter-tenor recitals are rare, and it was good to hear Chance premiere Anthony Powers's "High Windows", a work, Chance suggested, "rooted" in the counter-tenor voice: and few are more beautiful than Chance's. Perhaps the falsettist's expressive range is innately restricted, but Chance's encore with Purcell's "Music for a While" ended the evening on a high note, so to speak.

n Meltdown continues at the South Bank, London (0171-928 8800) to 1 July

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week