A Most Marvellous Party: Noël Coward and Friends (Signum Classics)
In urgent need of what the P. G. Wodehouse butler Jeeves called a pick-me-up, I turned to the frivolity of the Flapper Age when a party did not begin to swing until Noel Coward or one of the Gershwins got a rhythm going at the semi-tuned upright piano. The 1920s were a time of escapism and amnesia; whatever you do, don’t mention the war. Coward was a master of superficiality, the epochal playwright and songwriter of doomed relationships and existential loneliness encased in marzipan sentiment. Coward was not alone in his world-weariness; he was just better at it than the rest.
The selection of songs made here by soprano Mary Bevan and tenor Nicky Spence, with shimmering, Jeeves-like accompaniment from pianist Joseph Middleton, includes a number of composers who are way out of period but still in the mood. Benjamin Britten and William Walton barely belong to this crew, and Ned Rorem can only squeak in because his attitudes so closely mirrored Coward’s. Francis Poulenc is pitch-perfect, as is the insidious Englishman Roger Quilter. Each is given full value by a pair of opera singers who are plainly having a ball, to which you are cordially invited.
I loved their take on Kurt Weill’s ode to the river Seine and Rorem’s setting of ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’, so much more cynical than Quilter’s kitsch. Britten’s ‘When you’re feeling like expressing your affection’ is an unexpected torch song from an exceptionally shy man. ‘The party’s over now,’ declares Coward. But he knows it isn’t and so do we. Nothing here can be taken seriously, and I’m now feeling much the better for that. Another of your pick-me-up, please, Jeeves?
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