BBC Proms 2017 – The Songs of Scott Walker

John Grant, Jarvis Cocker, Susanne Sundfør and Richard Hawley (all above), London Contemporary VoicesHeritage Orchestra / Jules Buckley

Walker, arr. Jules Buckley, Stefan Behrisch, Peter Riley and Tom Trapp Titles from Scott (1967), Scott 2 (1968), Scott 3, Scott 4 (1969) & Till the Band Comes In (1970)

Dick Hovenga and Simon Raymonde, creative directors

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 25 July 2017 (late night)

You can watch this Prom here

This late-night Prom highlighted the song-writing talent of Scott Walker from his late 1960s heyday. Less challenging while no less provocative than the music he has released this past two decades, it is a token of their composer’s fleeting stardom that few, if any, of these songs were played live when they were written; only to be consigned to vinyl limbo once Walker’s star waned and he abandoned live performance in 1978. Tonight’s programme saw a notable line-up of singers assembled to honour this legacy and maybe even give it a new lease of life.

The songs themselves were drawn from the four ‘numbered’ albums released during 1967-69, along with three tracks from Till the Band Comes In – the 1970 offering that Walker himself disowned but which he now seemingly recognizes as a worthy successor to what went before.

Although he has known Walker well since their collaboration on Pulp’s final album We Love Life in 2001, as a vocalist Jarvis Cocker is not best suited to the interpreting of songs whose technical demands brook no compromise. After the plangent orchestral strains of Prologue had died away, he struggled with the ethereal Boy Child (its fusing of music and expression the most perfect of Walker’s song in this period), then under-projected the surreal and ominous imagery of Plastic Palace People. Nor was he a natural choice for the bittersweet poise of The War is Over (probably the most obscure of all these hidden gems), despite rendering it with telling sotto voce understatement, though the breezy litany of chaos and disaster which informs Little Things That Keep Us Together allowed his innately ironic delivery free rein.

There could be no doubt, even so, that John Grant is infinitely more attuned to this music, and so it proved as he brought out the wrenching pathos of Rosemary, then the pert confessional of The World’s Strongest Man. No less telling was the capricious whimsy of Copenhagen or propulsive drama of the Ingmar Bergman-inspired The Seventh Seal; this latter number benefiting from a starkly fatalistic tone such as the 24-year-old Walker could not summon back in the day. A whole album of these ‘covers’ from Grant would be more then welcome.

As also would be one from Icelandic singer Susanne Sundfør (above), whose often brittle yet always focussed delivery teased out the deadpan humour from On Your Own Again then stripped Angels of Ashes of undue preciousness. Best of all was the edgy irony she brought to The Amorous Humphrey Plugg, another highpoint of Walker’s song-writing, while Hero of the War aligned anger and compassion to a telling degree. A slight pity that Long About Now, Walker’s one number intended for a female vocalist, was not featured. Maybe another time?

A fine guitarist and distinctive crooner, Richard Hawley proved as attentive to the tangible atmospherics of It’s Raining Today as to the warm evocation (so easy to sentimentalize) of Two Ragged Soldiers. Neither was there any dilution of that yearning for domestic bliss in Montague Terrace (in Blue) or sardonic humour in The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime) – a song which underlines Walker’s awareness of the political realities during this period, as has surfaced more obliquely in much of his more recent music.

Throughout this 90-minute sequence, Jules Buckley secured vivid and attentive playing from the Heritage Orchestra, while London Contemporary Voices made the most of some brief yet pertinent contributions. They, together with all four of tonight’s singers, united for a rousing Get Behind Me – a surprisingly funky number in context – to end this impressive showcase. Hawley remarked to the audience that such an event might never happen again, though one cannot help feeling Walker’s 1960s output could now be up and running – not before time!

Richard Whitehouse (photos (c) Mark Allan)

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