Lisa Milne Sings, Jacques Brel, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

It was a very long way from Mozart's Pamina, Handel's Alcina, Donizetti's Adina or Bizet's butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth Micaela. Indeed, Lisa Milne had put away her shining soprano for the night. Either that, or left it at home in Scotland. The only way to reach the songs of Jacques Brel is from the heart; the only way to deliver them, from the gut - as she knows better than most.

The Belgian singer-songwriter has grown into something of an obsession for her. Not so long ago, a predominantly demure lunchtime recital at this very hall unexpectedly went into orbit with Brel's mad, deliriously intoxicating waltz song "La Valse à Mille Temps". Neither the audience nor the hall's director, Paul Kildea, knew what had hit them. Kildea invited Milne to make up a complete Brel programme to christen the hall's own record label, Wigmore Live. This was it.

Brel's songs are bite-sized morsels of his life - sweet, sour, and spicy; chewed up and spat out. They are beautiful, ugly, sad, funny. They walk on the wild side. In the raw. They clearly mean a lot to Milne. She comes at them from the inside with her well-heard, well-observed French, gamely taking on all their colloquialisms. She has the sound of them well-established in her imagination and the realisation comes directly from that - a wily mix of head and chest tones for maximum seduction and pungency and not so much as a hint that there might be an international soprano voice lurking in there somewhere.

But it's because she comes at these songs from the inside that she can convincingly, spontaneously, reinvent her sound. It has to be said that the more conversational - though sometimes haranguing - mode of delivery made for a bit of a balance problem in the hall's grateful, lively acoustic - and especially with her pianist/arranger Richard Peirson giving the house Steinway some welly.

Still, the recording will have caught all the nuances. And there were a lot to catch. Milne prefaced each song with a brief résumé and translation, and it was fun to make the switch with her from homely Scot to drunken Parisian or indeed any of Brel's sad, sorrowful, desperate dreamers. There they were in "Les Désesperés", with its wistful intimations of Ravel. And the biting, butt-slapping satire of "Les Bourgeois", a rowdy, rapacious song about growing old and uncool. Most of Brel's songs start low-key, slow-burn, and build until the emotion, despair or anger can be contained no more. Milne mingled with the sailors of "Amsterdam" and then leafed through childhood snapshots in "Mon Enfance".

And, of course, there was the perennial plea of lovers everywhere - Brel's most famous, most sung, most painfully direct song - "Ne Me Quitte Pas". Forget the English version: "If you go away, on a summer's day" just doesn't do it. It's "Don't Leave Me" or nothing at all. Milne was on the edge with it. And we didn't want to leave her.