Scott Walker has earned the rare reputation as a pioneering force as a singer and songwriter, with his works interpreted and cited as an influence by illustrious artists such as Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and Radiohead. Known for his hauntingly expressive baritone and poetic lyricism, his presence permeates avant-garde and popular culture – the latter demonstrated in the revival of the cover for the Walker Brothers’ Stay with Me (1967), currently doing the rounds in an advert for a mobile-phone provider.
This Late Prom, heralded as the first-ever live performance with orchestra of an array of songs from Scott Walker’s first four solo albums, opened with a plaintive flourish of strings, expanding and shimmering, meandering into shades of darkness, drawing the audience into immediacy and unfolding theatre.
Jarvis Cocker emerged as the first of the featured artists, rendering ‘Boy Child’ as a pensive and pendulous lullaby. This rhythmically sparse yet melodically layered piece, morphed seamlessly into the playful, shimmering magic of ‘Plastic Palace People’, with the London Contemporary Voices adding drama and delight. On the whole, Cocker’s performance tended toward imitation, as opposed to interpretation. ‘Little Things That Keep Us Together’ provided the exception, Cocker coming into his own quirky expression of Walker’s enigmatic storytelling.
Susanne Sundfør opened with a thrilling version of ‘On Your Own Again’, lending a delicate fragility to the sensitive and introspective lyrics. She carried ‘Angels of Ashes’ with majesty and vocal fluidity in harmonic interplay with a melancholic mandolin. Sundfør – by virtue of being the only female performer here – was the boldest choice in terms of interpreting Walker’s work. She met the challenge with creativity and versatility. In ‘Hero of the War’, Sundfør injected a whimsical freshness to the anecdotal content. With ‘The Amorous Humphrey Plugg’ Sundfør thrilled, worthy of a James Bond theme.
John Grant’s velvety baritone set him apart as the natural successor to Walker’s mantle. ‘Rosemary’, resplendent with pathos, brought out the multi-coloured palette of the song’s impressionistic narrative. Grant went on to command ‘Copenhagen’ – one of Walker’s much-loved standards – with mastery, accompanied by a luminous arrangement, through to the dreamy demise of a carousel ride.
In ‘It’s Raining Today’ Richard Hawley echoed Walker’s contemplative, melancholy tone, counterpointing the shrill tension of glacial strings. In ‘Two Ragged Soldiers’, he handled the poetic content sensitively against the lush backdrop of Jules Buckley’s scoring, soaring in a cinematic sweep of strings infused with tender warmth.
The finale, ‘Get Behind Me’, featured all the artists, each singing a phrase of this celebratory piece in turn and Hawley contributing a rapturous guitar solo, and was a fitting climax to a brilliant programme representing the work of a stellar songwriter here underscored by compelling and heartfelt renditions.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 6 Music (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms