Scottish Ensemble / Toby Spence - Wigmore Hall, 7 February 2010Satie Gnossienne No. 1 Debussy (arr. Morton) Serenade for the Doll, The Little Shepherd, Jimbo's Lullaby, Golliwogg's Cake-Walk from 'Children's Corner' Satie Gnossienne No. 3 Schwertsik Adieu Satie Brel J'arrive, Amsterdam, Ces gens-là, Fernand, Jef, Vesoul, Au suivant, Les bourgeois, La valse à mille temps Encore: Brel La chanson des vieux amants
Popstar to Operastar demonstrates how tough it is for even the most successful of entertainers to switch genres. Lest anyone imagine that's because opera is 'hard' and pop is 'easy', Toby Spence proved in this patchy recital of Jacques Brel favourites that even an abundance of operatic skill is not enough to guarantee success when the the musical goalposts are moved.
Toby Spence seems to love Brel's music passionately. It's a shame he couldn't commit it all to heart though. True, there were a lot of words to learn, but it was a stretch to believe them when they were often read from a music stand. In Schubert, this wouldn't be an issue, but what Brel's songs demand most of all - above technical accuracy, native idiom or anything else - is conviction. Like a marriage proposal or a hostage statement, it's simply impossible to believe in when it's read from the page.
Spence doesn't have a flawless native accent, but I don't find that a necessity for this material. Clear diction however is vital. Perhaps an instinctive habit of his training, Spence favoured the smooth musical line over crisply-enunciated text. I hadn't expected le style, but I had at least hoped for les paroles. For the rapid patter of La valse à mille temps, it was less of a concern, but for the detailed narrative of Les bourgeois it was a serious drawback. Perhaps Brel's more lyrical, less declamatory songs like Litanies pour un retour or Je ne sais pas might have proved a better match for Spence's talents than the more well-known and verbally demanding ones that ended up on the programme.
A lot of the material sat in Spence's growly lower reaches - surely these songs are not too precious to transpose? Only Amsterdam was entirely in the more comfortable part of his range, and it was by far his most musically effective selection.
Reservations aside, Spence's deep love for Brel's music came across clearly in the songs themselves and his spoken introduction to each one. But as the Popstar to Operastar candidates are finding, enthusiasm only goes so far - training, practice and experience are required to complete the picture. Jacques Brel himself spent many nights honing his techniques in Brussels nightclubs before launching himself to success in Paris. For a first bash at singing Brel in public, Spence didn't do too badly, but he's got a long way to go.
No complaints about the wonderful idiomatic arrangements from the fourteen musicians of the Scottish Ensemble - including expert accordionist Ian Watson - which framed the songs beautifully. A first half filled with Satie, Debussy and Kurt Schwertsik's playful Satie tribute, Adieu Satie was an undemanding but delightful complement.