BBC Proms reviews

Prom 15: The Songs Of Scott Walker (1967-70)

25 July 2017

John Grant, Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley and Susanne Sundfør

Prom 15: The Songs of Scott Walker (1967-70), with John Grant, Jarvis Cocker, Susanne Sundfør, Richard Hawley and London Contemporary Voices with the Heritage Orchestra conducted by Jules Buckley (Photo: Mark Allan/BBC)

The BBC Proms is a one for anniversaries, and 2017 happens to be the 50th(ish) anniversary of the beginning of Scott Walker’s post-Walker Brothers solo career. But how is a single concert, however impressive the performers and considered the programme, to do justice to a career which began with a fresh-faced twentysomething pop idol flushed with global stardom, who would eventually tangent off to collaborate with the becowled Sunn O))), and whose avant garde journey to the darkest of realms, punched donkeys and meat-playing is the stuff of hushed-tones legend? Which aspects are best to hone in upon: the producer of Pulp’s last album; the celebrated interpreter of Jacques Brel; the composer-for-others; the band leader whose material and voice characterised their whole sound; or the songwriter of a slew of solo bona fide classics?

Filtering, theming and contextualising an artistic canon is happily what the Proms does best, and the focus here is on Walker’s first four solo albums (discounting the deleted Scott: Scott Walker Sings Songs From His TV Series), released between 1967 and 1970 when he was still in his mid-20s. At the time he was very much positioned alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams as an easy listening idol of sorts, but by the release of Scott 4 it was clear Walker’s muse was taking him in quite different directions. The filtering here continues further, eschewing the Brel covers of the first three records, and the other interpretations, in favour of Walker’s self-penned material. In so doing it draws attention away from Walker the interpreter and Walker the voice, and gives it instead to Walker the composer – perhaps the aspect of his career least well recognised and most due for reassessment. Given Walker’s continued disinclination to perform, this was to be the closest we would likely get to seeing these songs as they were meant to be seen.

John Grant

John Grant @ Royal Albert Hall, London (Photo: Mark Allan/BBC)

There’s a filtering too of featured artists. Nowhere to be found are notedly devoted Walkerees Marc Almond, Neil Hannon or Julian Cope (Hannon’s The Divine Comedy are on tour, tonight playing in Germany). Instead the Heritage Orchestra, conducted by Jules Buckley in his ninth Proms appearance and featuring a harp rather lost in amongst all the musicians, is fronted by a quartet of stars whose adoration of Walker has been until now in some cases better known than in others.

Co-artistic director Simon Raymonde, whose father Ivor Raymonde arranged The Walker Brothers classics Make It Easy On Yourself and The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, signed John Grant (it’s his birthday today) and Susanne Sundfør to his Bella Union label, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. They take turns with Sheffielders and sometime Pulpsters Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley in giving flight to a set which, at just 75 minutes without interval, feels like a snapshot introduction to Walker’s extraordinary career. This programming acknowledgement serves to take the pressure off the artists a little – perhaps happily, we will never hear a Hawley version of Epizootics! – and highlights Walker’s lushly romantic orchestral pop sound of the time.

Cocker, corduroyed from neck to heel, strides on first. The only artist tonight who also appeared at the Barbican Theatre’s 2008 production Drifting And Tilting: The Songs Of Scott Walker, he interviewed the reclusive icon on his BBC Radio 6 Music show a couple of days prior to this Prom. Sliding happily between his twin roles of broadcaster and former Pulp front man, Cocker is of course a confident presence, safe in his intimate knowledge of Walker’s canon and happy in his skin as a star in his own right. He wheels out Boy Child and Plastic Palace People, the latter in particular tracing a clear path directly to Pulp’s observational, micro-specific songs of everyday happenings.

Susanne Sundfør

Susanne Sundfør @ Royal Albert Hall, London (Photo: Mark Allan/BBC)

Sundfør glides on to the stage as Cocker takes his temporary leave and the Heritage Orchestra continue to play. A soprano amid three baritones, the Norwegian’s curveball selection as one of tonight’s singers is the most intriguing. Initially hesitant, and with inconsistent volume at times subsumed beneath the orchestra, she nevertheless brings her own style to On Your Own Again and Angels Of Ashes. Grant, who appears on labelmate Sundfør’s new single, is next up. Sporting the serious-smart black suit and shirt ensemble he wore here for his Confide In Me duet with Kylie Minogue last Christmas, he warms up with Rosemary before bringing gentle irony and self-deprecation to bear on The World’s Strongest Man, staying just the right side of karaoke in the process and making the song his own.

Two-time Mercury Prize nominee Hawley is the final of the foursome to take to the stage. Curiously he brings on an acoustic guitar, and greets the audience. His fellow featured artists, musicians all, had noted the presence of an orchestra replete with guitarists and presumably surmised that others might play music while they sang, and otherwise stayed silent. But Hawley seems to need to present himself as a guitarist and compere as well as a front man, with his instrument and music stand serving somewhat as props. He gets It’s Raining Today, one of Walker’s loveliest compositions, and his rich, honeyed baritone is well suited; yet there’s a sense of rushing to the finishing line, of a slightly too quick tempo; rather than letting the words linger and sink in, Hawley checklists them, missing the chance to imbue them with feeling or meaning.

Jarvis Cocker

Jarvis Cocker fronts the Heritage Orchestra @ Royal Albert Hall, London (Photo: Mark Allan/BBC)

From then on the performers interchange more frequently. Cocker breaks out some flamenco-Jarvis shapes for Little Things That Keep Us Together, while Sundfør’s soaring soprano fills the room on The Amorous Humphrey Plugg. Hawley again seems rushed on the otherwise orchestrally gorgeous Montague Terrace (In Blue). But Grant is best of all, studiously noble and note-perfect on the Ingmar Bergman-inspired The Seventh Seal, owning the space entire and taking the audience along through the story’s journey and wringing out every dramatic nuance. Hawley namechecks everyone while ending the set with The Old Man’s Back Again, and all four return together, a little awkwardly, for Get Behind Me, taking it in turns to sing verses and duet. Hawley at this point feels the need to enter into some inappropriate guitar soloing, as if in challenge to the orchestra. It strikes rather an odd final note.

The programme might have sprawled over an entire evening, rather than being relegated to a Late Night Prom slot. An entire career might have come under the spotlight, rather than a mere four years of it. Other artists might have been called upon to supplement the line-up. By the same token, Walker might have only ever written these songs and then disappeared entirely. Tonight’s Prom served instead to focus in on a transformational period in the career of a one-off artist. Unlike the late David Bowie – who acted as executive producer on a documentary about Walker and covered one of his tracks himself – Walker is at least in the room to enjoy a Prom dedicated to his musicianship, and see his work elevated by his devotees up alongside that of classical masters of the past. On a decidedly celebratory evening, he had grounds to be happiest of all.

Richard Hawley

Richard Hawley @ Royal Albert Hall, London (Photo: Mark Allan/BBC)

Setlist: Prologue, Boy Child (Cocker), Plastic Palace People (Cocker), On Your Own Again (Sundfør), Angels Of Ashes (Sundfør), Rosemary (Grant), The World’s Strongest Man (Grant), It’s Raining Today (Hawley), Two Ragged Soldiers (Hawley), The War Is Over (Sleepers – Epilogue) (Cocker), Copenhagen (Grant), The Amorous Humphrey Plugg (Sundfør), Montague Terrace (In Blue) (Hawley), Little Things That Keep Us Together (Cocker), The Seventh Seal (Grant), Hero Of The War (Sundfør), The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated To The Neo-Stalinlist Regime) (Hawley), Get Behind Me (All).

Further information about the BBC Proms can be found here. Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 6 Music, Prom 15 will be shown on BBC Four on Friday 28 July 2017 at 10pm, and is available on the BBC iPlayer.

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