Arts

Music: Assault and battery by grand pianos

Pianos, like dogs, are best kept apart: the sound of more than one together in a small space can be torture. And it was in a relatively small space at Clare Hall, Cambridge that I heard a two-piano recital to mark the college’s 50th year of existence.

Marie-Noëlle Kendall and Patrick Hemmerlé were both strong, percussive players with a muscular intensity that thundered through Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Ravel’s La Valse (in the composers’ own keyboard transcriptions). Earplugs would have been a mercy.

But the power of the Rachmaninov was thrilling, tempered by precision, focus and alert musicianship which ultimately triumphed over the assault and battery of hammered textures. And for light relief there was a piece commissioned for the Clare Hall anniversary: one as frothy as its title, Champagn’d Chabrier. With donnish jokes and pleasantries, I daresay it fulfilled its celebratory brief, and it was certainly well played. Otherwise, I didn’t see the point of it.

Two fascinating variants on song recitals surfaced last week – one of them from the comedian Barry Humphries who, when wearing trousers, is a scholarly Germanophile. Right now, he’s touring what he calls a Weimar Cabaret, which celebrates his fondness for the sharp, dark, desperate sound-world that defined Berlin during the 1920s/30s, until Hitler branded it degenerate.

With songs by Kurt Weill, Erwin Schulhoff, Friedrich Hollaender (who wrote Marlene Dietrich’s hits), the show has the Australian Chamber Orchestra onstage to guarantee the music, and the cabaret performer Meow Meow to supply the singing. Which leaves Humphries not too much to do except play MC, tell some jokes and drop some names. But he does all those things with offhand stylishness. It works. The audience love it. And there are delectable discoveries in his choice of repertoire.

A different, less lavish but equally memorable entertainment was the one-man (if that’s the right term for a countertenor in drag) show A Willesden Liederkreis, in the Arcola Theatre’s so-called Grimeborn opera season. The countertenor was the hypnotically sweet-voiced Magid El-Bushra. And his show adapted the idea of a Schumann song-cycle to tell the story of a Muslim boy growing up lonely and gay in Willesden Green. A story that was, needless to say, El-Bushra’s own.

A dramatised concert with costume changes (more than Angela Gheorghiu would dare), it suffered in pace as Bushra struggled with his zips. But it was smartly scripted, deeply touching and beautifully sung – through a bizarre hotchpotch of music from baroque opera to Björk.

For the title alone, it deserved notice. But to hear it was a joy.