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
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