All this came sharply to mind as I finally got round to listening to a CD issued several seasons back, EMI’s “The Noël Coward Songbook,” with Bostridge assisted by modest soprano Sophie Daneman and sparkling Jeffrey Tate at the piano (EMI 57374). The musicians offer 19 selections from the 1920s and 1930s, covering just a bit over one hour of playing time. It seemed a generous serving.
Let me explain. First of all, one is accustomed to faux voices singing Coward. The enchanting Gertrude Lawrence went from little voice, to less voice, to, alas, no voice at all during her stage and recordings career, during which she nevertheless gave much pleasure. The master himself, Sir Noël, was the most wispy of popular vocalists – a pale tenor of little quality that could not carry without amplification. Coward never made any bones about it, and I always assumed his enormous verbal wit and cunning emphasis on words and their projection were to a degree in compensation for his lack of vocal quality. In any case, it worked. If Bostridge comes from the same school, as one might argue, there is just one hitch – he has not got the genuine style, not the way with words, in the Coward sense, and seemingly has little or no ability to create sentimental effect. Such is very hard to do, when one is as self-conscious as Bostridge. Oddly enough, and contrary to expectations, he has plenty of voice for this repertory. Though an undistinguished, rather monochromatic tenor, it’s an honest one, with adequate support and projection.
So what’s the rub? Let’s take our cue from Bostridge’s own short introductory paragraph written for this collection: “My first concern while contemplating a disc of Noël Coward songs was finding a voice for them.” The voice he seems to have found is not Coward’s and surely it would always have been a search in vain – there is a Coward voice, so why look further than the master himself?
Affected, manipulated vowels (perhaps intended to sound upper-class or maybe just campy, or who knows what?); patter-song rapidity; little dynamic swells or sighs or diminuendos; self-conscious ‘phrasing,’ the god-awful need to do something with what is already well-wrought, – these do not constitute ‘style’ or the Coward ‘voice.’ I’ll be terribly blunt – they don’t amount to anything but blathering affectation, a song that is always for the singer, or to use an old-fashioned term, “fruity.” One quickly tires of Bostridge singing Bostridge in the guise of Noel Coward.
Consider the introduction to a duet scene from Bitter Sweet,
“Though there may be beauty in this land of yours,
Skies are very often dull and grey,
If I could but take that little hand of yours,
Just to lead you secretly away....” etc.
The mood set by Bostridge is strictly solipsistic: it does not project beyond the end of his nose. Yet, he is singing to his young lady and soon will move with her into the celebrated duet “I’ll See You Again,” in an arch, over arranged version that does not convince – in part because the tenor does not seem to be singing to her. Can one run off to Vienna with oneself? Ummm....interesting thought!
A little later in Bitter Sweet, the lead-in for “Ziguener,” that starts, “Many years ago,” becomes, “Many years aguh....” illustrating one of the singer’s most consistent annoyances – manipulating the natural ‘o/oh’ vowel into something oddly akin to, “aguh.” Coward’s most popular song (Winston Churchill listened to it frequently, demanded it at parties), “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” in a cutesy- kitschy, re-harmonized arrangement with sound-effects (don’t ask), is a travesty in these meddling hands. If nothing else, maestro Jeffrey Tate should have known better than to soil his reputation participating in these pathetic maneuverings. If there is one lesson to be learnt here it is this: Coward’s songs are all about words, largely in natural conversational style; if you treat them otherwise, they don’t work. Make his music honestly, for it is that to begin with!
J. A. Van Sant