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Noël Coward in America - The Best on CD

Noël Coward at Las Vegas
(1955): DRG 19037

Noël Coward in New York
(1957): DRG 19038

(both 2003 reissues)

Noël Coward at Las Vegas (1955): DRG 19037 Noël Coward in New York (1957): DRG 19038 (both 2003 reissues) These recordings need little introduction to Coward enthusiasts, at least as far as their sleeve artwork is concerned, which has become almost iconic. Both of these recordings are essential “must-haves” for the Coward collector/enthusiast, and both have much of exceptional interest to recommend them, beyond the breathless pace and command of his audience which Coward himself displays at Las Vegas: these 2 CDs encapsulate the history of Coward’s post-war “relaunch” of his music to a new, originally American audience, and are as good a world-reaching legacy of the work of the late brilliant accompanist/arranger Peter Matz as he is likely to get. In the euphoria of his astonishing reception at Las Vegas, Coward wrote that Matz’s “orchestral arrangements and variations are incredible - vital and imaginative. Sometimes they go too far for my personal taste, but I cannot fail to be impressed by his expert knowledge of instrumentation.”

In fact, for a lot of the Las Vegas comedy numbers Matz accompanies most of the song on piano alone, but with orchestral introductions and endings. For example, the orchestral instruments in ‘Nina’ are heard only in the declamatory opening and then again in the (quite long) coda; while Hackforth’s song ‘Loch Lomond’ (still after 49 years mis-credited on the sleeve) has just ten seconds of orchestra as it builds to a climax at the end of the piece. But Matz is deft and discrete where he needs to be, and there is a cracking arrangement for the song ‘A Bar On The Piccola Marina’, where muted trumpets and clarinets in close harmony first point up the “fills” between lyric lines, and then sustain chords and support harmony in the section which starts “she’d just sit there propping up the bar”, leaving the piano at this point to flash in and out with jazzy decorations. The drums are present throughout, discreetly, but are only brought to the fore exactly where it is most effective. You have to listen hard to a quiet, melodic number such as ‘World Weary’ to discern exactly what it is that Matz has done, as it is sometimes so discreet - a single, quiet clarinet moving on minims, perhaps - as to slip by almost without being noticeable. Paradoxically, in this context this is perhaps the greatest accolade that can be paid to such musical craftsmanship. However, it is in the studio recordings for the following year’s album Noël Coward In New York where Matz’s expertise as arranger and accompanist can be heard to best advantage. In one respect this album also stands as Coward’s own recording apogee, in that the quality of recorded sound as well as the timbre, tuning and control of his own voice are all superior to anything that he had done before or that was to follow. It is a pretty good selection of varied pieces, too, and at the time Coward thought that the last recording session in particular, where four songs were accompanied just by Matz and a small group of expert individual instrumentalists on double- bass, trumpet, guitar and drums, had gone “fairly triumphantly”, and he wrote in his diary of finding the results “exciting”.

It is these four small-band-accompanied songs which are my own personal favourites on this album, because of the inherent economy of their instrumentation. ‘Half-Caste Woman’ and ‘Twentieth Century Blues’ are very similar in their mood - a sort of nightclub jazz treatment at a relaxed but strictlycontrolled tempo, concentrating on the vocal line which is presented with excellent tuning and emphasis - and both feature a typically jokey Matz touch of surprising doublings in the tempo for the space of one bar in their second refrains, as if the song had suddenly broken out of its self-control and been sharply reined in again.

In ‘Sail Away’ Matz produces a surprisingly lush lyricism from such a limited combination of accompanying instruments, with good use of richly chordal piano figurations. However, it is principally on account of the song ‘Time And Again’ that I particularly treasure this album. It amounts to a completely new interpretation of a superbly-crafted song which without this recording might be almost unknown. It had made a brief appearance in the 1952 London cabaret shows, in which context Hackforth remembered that “it didn’t ever really work” (to my mind at least partly on account of the rather scrappy original orchestral arrangement) and from which it was soon dropped. The song is certainly worthy of Matz’s and Coward’s reworking: it has elegantly poised long lyric lines (each packed with neat internal rhymes) whose main rhymes are far distant and often unexpected. The musical lines modulate agreeably and have the necessary span and growth to match and support the lyric structure, and the theme of the song is so typical of Coward’s best work - a relaxed but artful sigh of “heigh-ho” at life’s richness and mess of emotions. The number finds its true voice and definitive tempo in this arrangement, which sets the whole song to a steady beat, sparsely pointed in the accompaniment but with Matz’z shafts of jazz piano improvisation adding a level of both rhythmic and harmonic interest which is almost worthy of Carroll Gibbons. The whole is delivered in a deliciously laidback swing jazz style which offers maximum enjoyment of the clever crossrhythmic stresses at the end of the “middle eight” passages.

I am less fond of Coward’s rather camp approach to the hectically-paced ‘Marvellous Party’ and ‘I Wonder What Happened To Him?’, but one senses the showman showing off a bit, and why not? There are also good larger-band arrangements of ‘I Like America’, ‘Louisa’, ‘Why Must The Show Go On?’, ‘What’s Going To Happen To The Tots?’ and ‘Wait A Bit Joe’, the last a really good song from Sigh No More which is also hereby rescued from relative obscurity. The New York CD comes with informed sleeve notes by Will Friedwald, which thoroughly explore the contributions To Coward’s musical legacy by such as Matz, Hackforth and Ray Noble, and also makes interesting and informed comparisons between Coward and other songwriters such as cole Porter.

Parts of this review have previously appeared in the essay The Potency Of Cheap Music in Look Back In Pleasure - Noël Coward Reconsidered (Eds. Kaplan & Stowell/Methuen, 2000)