All together now: "You say 'Song recital', and I say 'Overweight singer doing a lot of vacuous hand gestures...'" OK, so it's not quite up to Ira Gershwin's high standards of rhyme and scansion, but you get the picture. Song recitals can be pretty dreadful affairs: singers concentrating on liquidity of tone and beautiful sound at the expense of meaning while singing in a foreign language that few of them can actually speak. Joan Sutherland was famous for virtually banishing consonants altogether and she's not alone. Yes, I'm generalising horribly, but too many singers sacrifice text in pursuit of beautiful sound.

Of course, there are singers in every field who blast such ideas out the window with their dedication to the communication of ideas, but even in "popular" music, style often wins out over substance. Unless they're trying to be classy and showing off their school French by tossing in something arty by Jacques Brel, these singers can't even hide behind the foreign-language problem; but that doesn't stop them massacring lyrics in favour of wowing you with vocal thrills. Take Tiger Bay's most famous tonsil waggler, Shirley Bassey. She has a peculiarly enthralling habit of hanging on to certain sounds way beyond their natural life expectancy and then suddenly spitting out entire sentences. This renders her gender- swap on George Harrison's "Something In the Way She Moves" into "S-s-s- s-omethinginawayeeeee... he mooooooovzah! Atraxmeelieee Kernotherlavooourrr..."

Not all vocalists adopt such extreme mannerisms, but dozens of so-called singing actors with showbiz credits aplenty pursue a formula for singing regardless of the material. An evening of a singer who insists on pulling the same rabbit out of an artful selection of different musical hats hits the law of diminishing returns pretty early.

So if you're a songwriter, who are you going to find who'll bring out the meaning of your carefully crafted lyric - Whitney Houston? No. If you're really clever, you write with a specific singer in mind, as Burt Bacharach and Hal David did for Dionne Warwick. The only difference between that working relationship and that of Benjamin Britten (above) and Peter Pears is that the latter two were, famously, lovers.

They lived and worked together for 36 years until Britten's death in 1976; in this time Britten composed countless works for the unique timbre of his lover's voice. Indeed, for a long time, other interpreters anxious to get their hands on such sensitive, dramatic word-settings fought shy of rushing in where angels fear to tread by trespassing on the faintly hallowed ground of the original interpretations, nearly all of which were faithfully recorded.

This unique musical collaboration began in 1940, six months after the beginning of their relationship, when Britten set seven of Michelangelo's passionate love sonnets to the handsome young aristocrat Tommaso de Cavalieri, with whom he was infatuated.

Almost 60 years later, in a bold move beginning a truly innovative music- theatre season at the Lyric Hammersmith, they are being staged for the first time. The director Neil Bartlett takes his cue not only from the songs themselves but from the dramatic (in every sense) implications of these men performing highly personal love songs together. There are just four performances, so I suggest that you book right this minute.

Lyric Hammersmith, W6 (0181-741 2311), 8-11 Apr

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