BBC Proms reviews

Prom 9 review – Portuguese pzazz: Mariza brings Fado to London

21 July 2023

Award-winning singer Mariza makes her BBC Proms debut with her take on Portugal’s most famous musical export.

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Mariza & band (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Like its Iberian cousins, Flamenco and Tango, Fado is music of the people; its songs are of broken hearts and crushed dreams, and – because Portugal has always been a seafaring nation – often of the sea, and those who work there. Both Fado traditions (the solo singer version of Lisbon, and the all-male ensemble version of Coimbre) have their roots in the early 19th century; both involve accompaniment from a standard guitar, but what makes the music special is the addition to the mix of the Portuguese guitar, a twelve-string instrument with a rounded body that looks like a large mandolin, and, indeed, like a mandolin, provides busy decoration, often on repeated notes or arpeggios, to the melody and underlying harmonies.

Purists would probably argue that true Fado should have a spontaneous element to it – a few performers in a bar late at night. Mariza, though, by marrying it with her early experience as a jazz and gospel singer, has brought the art form to the concert platform and to wider audiences, giving it a glitzy makeover, and introducing more instruments – on Friday evening, three guitars: acoustic (Phelipe Ferreira), Portuguese (Luis Guerreiro) and bass (Adriano Alves ‘Dinga’), percussion (João Freitas), an accordion (João Frade) and, (for some of the numbers) a lush string section, courtesy of London Contemporary Orchestra. Those same purists may cavil at this sort of treatment, but Mariza is hugely popular in Portugal and beyond, and her unique style – augmented by gesture, poise and a commanding stage presence –  is still full of passion, character and that indefinable quality, saudade.

As a testament to Mariza’s popularity, the Royal Albert Hall on Friday was packed – a large number of fans augmenting the usual Proms audience – and she gave them exactly what they wanted: a seamless sixteen song set of Fado classics and her own material.

Mariza… has brought the art form to the concert platform and to wider audiences…”

Mariza, live at the Royal Albert Hall, London

Mariza (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Mariza’s voice has both power and range with the required touch of huskiness, and she delivered contemplative songs such as Lágrima and Quem me dera, more beat driven Latin accounts like the Cape Verde Beijo de saudade and truly up-tempo, jolly numbers such as Verde limão with equal verve and style. It’s easy music to like – the melodies are catchy, and the rhythms compulsive; harmonically and texturally, there’s plenty going on – those characteristic virtuosic frills from the Portuguese guitar, the odd fascinating shift of chords in the harmony, the occasional plaintive sequence of notes from the accordion, and the generous warm underlay of strings. Above all, of course, are those vocal rubato sections, that in other music might be called cadenzas, where everything drops away, and we are left with just Mariza’s voice, in its own time, expressing pain and loss; the final programmed number, Ó gente da minha terra, with its long pause before the pickup, was a perfect demonstration of this.

Of particular mention were three songs that seemed to capture ‘traditional’ Fado. Primavera, with its slow, intense rhythmic pulse and yearning melody, gave Mariza full opportunity to use the drama of her voice. Melhor de Mim began with some lovely stopped guitar arpeggios and a minimum accompaniment, but the swell into a busy decorative passage and a full-throated chorus had the audience waving their phone lights. Barco negro’s insistent ostinato beat provided the matrix for passages of different texture: voice only, full accompaniment, sudden shifts in dynamic.

The Proms lighting team did a great job in adding colour and sparkle to the occasion, and perhaps the only criticism would be that those of us for whom Portuguese is a closed book would have appreciated some translations of the words.

• Prom 9 can be audio streamed  from BBC Sounds.

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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Prom 9 review – Portuguese pzazz: Mariza brings Fado to London