Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Gainsbourg Symphonic @ Barbican Hall, London

26 September 2017

Barbican Hall

Barbican Hall (Photo: Dion Barrett)

For his segment of the 1987 opera-compilation film Aria, Derek Jarman chose Charpentier’s Depuis le jour; the short accompanying film  features an elderly diva receiving plaudits and flowers intercut with a Super-8 film of young 1960s-era lovers frolicking on a beach. Both its cultural resonances and the intensity of its bittersweet emotions were duplicated, on Tuesday evening, by Jane Birkin’s Gainsbourg Symphonic, her tribute – accompanied by piano and orchestra – to her late lover and collaborator, Serge Gainsbourg.

Birkin’s voice was always quirky – a sweet girlish purity overlaid with a touch of huskiness. Some of that is still there, but, alas, the huskiness has taken over; every note is hard-won, and towards the end of the lengthy set (22 songs), the pitch began to waver. It almost didn’t matter, though, that songs such as Baby Alone In Babylone, L’Amour De Moi or Jane B (all of which require sustained weight) fell short of their original intensity; the audience loved her for what she had given them in the past, and for giving it to them again from the glow of a life well-lived: avec ses souvenirs, (as another chanteuse might have sung), elle a allumé le feu. 

The arrangements were all by Birkin’s current musical collaborator Nobuyuki Nakajima, and given the full-on Hollywood-Bowl treatment by The Heritage Orchestra under Geoffrey Styles, with Nakajima himself at the piano. The songs were carefully chosen – nearly all ballads, with the exception of the kooky La Gadoue and the can’t-commemorate-Serge-without-it Requiem Pour Un Con – and many of them were originally sung by Birkin in her thirteen years of collaboration with Gainsbourg. The band, however, had plenty to do, as the covers also allowed for some clever up-tempo sections – some great tango work in L’Anamour and Dépression Au Dessus Du Jardin, and a couple of magnificent full orchestral grand-bal waltzes in Jane B and Valse de Melody – as well as more subtle effects that the original small-club-band versions didn’t contain: a haunting cello solo at the opening of L’Aquoiboniste, a touch of anarchy from the trumpets in Ballade De Johnny Jane, the French-impressionist strings in Une Chose Entre Autres, and the variety of orchestral effects in Exercise En Forme De Z, ranging from the muted trumpets and quickstep of a 1930s musical to a soft landing on strings and a harp glissando.

There was perhaps a tendency for the lush orchestrations to take some of the cool minimalist quality or the outrageousness out of Gainsbourg’s original work – certainly, the evening contained little of his left-field material: the odd Reggae-ness of Aux Armes Et Caetera, or the sexually suspect Les Sucettes – but then, this was a misty-eyed retrospective, and placing him in a sumptuously twinkling Las-Vegas afterlife seemed somehow an appropriate tribute. The orchestral colour also suited Gainsbourg’s little borrowed numbers – Grieg’s Solveig’s Song in Lost Song, Brahms 3 in Baby Alone …, and Chopin’s E-minor Prelude in Jane B. The short instrumental medley (Lemon Incest, Je T’Aime, The Initial BB, Ma Lou Marilou and My Lady Heroine) was a well-constructed little orchestral suite.

The only cavil was, perhaps, the sound engineering. Birkin needed all of her amplification (and even then, the words weren’t always audible), but to push the orchestral feed through the sound system seemed unusually cruel; the band was the size of a symphony orchestra, and the amplified volume occasionally swamped her.

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