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A Review of Three Recent CDs of Music by Noël Coward
by Dominic Vlasto

I can remember Hackie (Norman Hackforth) being quite specific on this point: that when you reach the refrain of the song ‘A Bar On The Piccola Marina’ it must be sung against a rock-steady rhythm in the accompaniment, unvarying for the remainder of the song save its short interlude. This is partly because the end-of-line lyric “Wentworth- Brewster” and all the other things that subsequently rhyme with her cannot themselves possibly be delivered on the beat and thus need the firm rhythmic backing, and partly because only thus will the parody of the “funiculi-funicula” section shine fully. Michael Law, like Peter Greenwell before him, would have irritated Hackie by his performance of this song, on account of lack of strict rhythmic integrity in the accompaniment. But this purist niggle aside, as a stylish interpreter of the Noël Coward songbook, Michael Law can hardly be faulted. On the CD An Evening With Sheridan Morley and Michael Law [PICCD 101 (2003)] he sings eleven Coward songs, and in addition we get equally stylishly-interpreted songs by (among others) Gershwin, Porter, Flanders & Swann and Lehrer, Sheridan Morley’s commentaries and interludes, and a Special Guest Star appearance by Judy Campbell, who adds a twelfth Coward song and Maschwitz’s ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’. All in all, a most agreeable programme, pitched firmly at those who appreciate the era “when popular song had memorable melody and lasting lyrics” (as they say on the CD cover). Michael Law’s voice has a plain, almost simplistic charm, a clear, light baritone which he uses with crystal diction and impeccable tuning and control; yet there’s plenty of emotion when it’s needed, which he achieves by scrupulous consideration of the mood and pacing of each number, delicate modulations in the spacing and placing of particular words and phrases, and by really intelligent piano accompaniments. They would be accompaniments beyond the ordinary if played by a dedicated accompanist such as Hackie; but as self-accompaniments they are little short of remarkable. Michael Law’s is a really thoughtful, musicianly approach to this music; with his self-accompaniment he is as least as good as Hutch was, and his skill would certainly have been lauded by Hackie or Donald Swann. There are, doubtless, a number of more animated, agile and dramatic performances to be had of Coward’s lyric-oriented comedy numbers (such as ‘Mrs Worthington’, ‘The Stately Homes of England’ and ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’), but despite their relative blandness they are also faultlessly delivered. It is good to have a couple of really worthwhile performances of a couple of comedic songs which are not often presented (e.g. ‘Touring Days’ (1923) and ‘That Is The End Of The News’ (1945)); but Michael really shines in the more melodic numbers, where his pianistic skills add a rare measure of musical interest and elegance. I particularly enjoyed his ‘Sail Away’ and ‘Any Little Fish’, and was impressed by his interpretation of ‘You Were There’, to my mind one of Coward’s best-crafted songs and one which is full of musical pitfalls, all of which Michael manages to avoid. The fact that on this CD we have the poignant bonus of our late Vice-President Judy Campbell contributing ‘If Love Were All’ makes it a “must have” for NCS members, but it would have been pretty much “must have” even without her and Sheridan’s contributions. In a different guise, Michael Law appears with his own Piccadilly Dance Orchestra on the CD A Marvellous Party [CDJAY 1375 (2004)] with a further eleven Coward tracks. A splendid band arrangement of ‘Dance Little Lady’ transports one straight back to the ‘twenties with its snappily chuntering rhythms, to which Michael adds more than merely a crooner’s voice for a central vocal refrain. Some may find his excessively rolled ‘r’s in the following song, ‘A Room With A View’, a trifle too precious; and over-precious diction might also be a tiny criticism of his ‘Half-Caste Woman’, but this is momentary and completely redeemed by interesting and appropriate instrumental voicings in the band-only sections. You hear traces of this super-clarity again in his ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’, which features not only a self-accompaniment of much grace and lightness of touch but also the rarely-heard second Verse section. I like my ‘Nina’ a shade faster than Michael does; but his version of ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ here is actually rather better than on the Sheridan Morley CD, on account of being a touch betterpaced and a good deal more animated in the vocal delivery. It is also pleasing to have a really sound performance of one of Coward’s slow waltzes, ‘Dearest Love’ (sung by Alison Williams), which shows the romantic/melodic side of the Master’s songwriting skills to their best advantage. In fact, Michael Law has all the musicianly appeal – and few of the trained concert singer’s vocal excesses – of Ian Bostridge, and is infinitely preferable! Courtney Kenny is also preferable to Ian Bostridge, but dare one say that this is fairly easy to achieve? On his recent CD Mad Dogs And Englishmen [LMSYS 3 (2001)] Courtney Kenny also displays a plain, light baritone, but with a more incisive, dramatic treatment than Law of the parlando comedy numbers. Kenny does no fewer than twenty-two tracks, and one has to applaud the CD for the range of his knowledge of the Coward song repertoire, and his inclusion of one or two notable rarities, e.g. ‘Carrie’ (1923) and ‘Give Me The Kingston By-Pass’ (1945), Page 4  the latter being the only known recording of this title. His performance of some of the comedy songs is nicely animated and unexceptionable (‘Uncle Harry’, ‘Useless Useful Phrases’, ‘That Is The End Of The News’), and sometimes a touch off the normal repertoire (‘There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner’ (1951) and ‘I Wonder What Happened To Him? (1944)), but the well-known ones are not on the whole to be preferred, and one or two (e.g. ‘Nina’) are simply not neat enough. Kenny’s self-accompaniments sometimes do not help the song as they should, and don’t really add much value; but the real weakness of his performance, for me, is that his vocal quality does not display the lightness of touch and sureness of tone necessary for any worthwhile approach to the lyrical and melodic numbers. There are all sorts of moments (e.g. in his ‘I Travel Alone’, ‘Matelot’, ‘Half-Caste Woman’ and especially ‘Sail Away’) where there is insufficient pleasantness of vocal tone to sustain the interest, and one ended up rather wishing he hadn’t included them. You cannot fault Kenny on the grounds of quantity … but quality? Perhaps the best that can be said is that comparing Kenny with Law is bound to reflect unfavourably on the former, on account of the very high vocal quality, skills and musicianship of the latter. Dominic Vlasto Both Michael Law CDs are available from The Piccadilly Dance Orchestra @ £12.98: Internet or phone orders can be made with credit cards. NCS MEMBERS - SPECIAL OFFER : ORDER BOTH CD’s TOGETHER by phone, mentioning NCS, for a total of £20 www.thepiccadillydanceorchestra.co.uk +44 (0)1233 612183 Courtney Kenny CD £15 from:Russet’s, Straight Mile Etchingham E. Sussex TN19 7BA Email: [email protected] NAXOS Nostalgia 8.120721 It was not acknowledged in the June issue of Home Chat that the interesting Calcutta Recordings of 1944 are released in full for the first time on this recent due to the efforts of our US West Coast representative, Alan Farley. Alan has taken responsibility for ensuring that producer David Lennick’s series for NAXOS of the ‘complete’ Coward recordings (NC himself singing) are inded complete! Contributions to the series have also included Coward’s own experimental recording of ‘Mad About The Boy’ probably the only known recording of Coward accompanying himself on the piano, which was the lead item in Vol. 3. On Vol. 4 we particularly recommend to performers the Hackforth accompaniment for ‘Nina’. Apply through NCS if you are interested in obtaining a written copy.