Music

MESTIZO! Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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They say everyone has their double. All the way through last week's long but lively Queen Elizabeth Hall show in which Isabel Palacios presented her current array of performers in Camerata de Caracas, I was racking my brains for the well-known person she resembles. In the final Venezuelan folk number it hit me: Shirley Bassey! Palacios is white, she didn't flaunt her armpits, nor did she venture high kicks. But her facial features are distinctly Bassey-like, and so are the fussy hands and the gleaming smile. I'm Moma, and these are my babes, she seemed to say.

Palacios's own singing voice is a reedy mezzo, and a lovely instrument for her repertoire of 17th- and 18th-century songs from Latin America. But her brief spoken introductions were neither clear nor very helpful even when you could make out what she was saying, especially in the first half, where the order of songs was not as printed in the programme. They were mainly graceful or lively songs with religious words, set for any number of voices from one to five, in which Palacios was joined by an array of well-contrasted singers, all performing in a natural, vigorous way. Especially distinctive among them was Carlos Godoy, a very high, light tenor - just a bit like a young Hugues Cuenod - who made the sweet, easy kind of sound you never hear from a British tenor.

In the band of 10 assorted strings, winds and plucked instruments, the second fiddler doubled both as a very high tenor and as a falsettist - he was very much a character singer rather than a beautiful voice, and he threw himself about a lot. All the players doubled as chorus in certain numbers, and the cellist - a rather reserved-looking but very pretty girl - showed surprising aplomb in folkloric solos, which she belted out in a chest voice. One religious song had sections sung by three singers in the squawky tone that Musica Reservata used to cultivate 20-odd years ago.

But it was all very confusing, because most of us, probably, lost track of the programme midway through the first half. Not only was it hard for non-Spanish speakers to know what was being sung, but beyond names and very vague dates, and the fact that many of the songs were about the Nativity, we had no idea of the original circumstances of the music's composition or performance. The programme book had a very fanciful but not easily understood statement of the Camerata's aims, and nothing about the musical background of its repertoire.

Even so, the audience seemed happy to let this admittedly pretty entertainment wash over them in the spirit of cultural tourism, though an Argentine woman I got talking to was voluble in her criticism of the singers' pronunciation and also the choice of instruments. A lot of it was too Afro, she thought. Still, since the evening was called Mestizo!, we had been warned it was a salad. The variety of textures and rhythms in a sequence of 15 short songs and dances from Peru was nothing if not diverting, and the range of voice types, each a distinct personality, made for some vivid depiction of character, whether the words were sacred or secular.

To end, a group of Venezuelan folksongs showed a remarkable range of expression, from austere, unaccompanied worksongs, each sung by one of the men, to a final Fuli, in which everybody joined, singing strongly from the chest, against a jiggling, ever-changing pattern of percussion.

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