Thursday, May 30

Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert – Online@TheSpaceUK

Melanie Gall, a Canadian opera singer who works internationally bringing the singers and songs of the past back to life, now focuses on the greatest of French musical icons: Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel.

The concert is not impossible because of the music, but because these two legends never worked together or even met. Piaf (1915-1963), her adopted name causing her to be nicknamed “The Little Sparrow” was born into Parisian poverty, a daughter of street and circus performers. Brel (1929-1978) was born in Brussels and is considered to be the master of the modern chanson.

Vocalist Gall clearly feels both affinity and affection with the music associated with both artists, and despite not being a native French speaker her diction is impeccable, mining the meaning deep within her song choices such as Piaf’s signature songs “La vie en rose” and “Non, je ne regrette rien” and Brel’s lively “Valse a Mille Pas” and “La chanson des vieux amants”, which she describes as the most beautiful song he ever wrote.

When I first heard the voice of Edith Piaf I was absolutely mesmerised by the unusual delivery and interpretations of the songs, especially in her rousing “Milord” and “Padam, padam” (both included in Gall’s repertoire). For an opera singer to touch this material may lead to a disconnect, as Gall is clearly in possession of a huge range and musical talent, but in fact it suits a lot of the material well.

For me, the slight disappointments were in the truncated version of “La Vie En Rose”, which is shorn of its opening verse, and in a lack of emotional delivery in “Ne me quitte pas”, which we may know better with Rod McEwen’s English lyrics as “If You Go Away”). However, this is no imitation, nor an exploration of the artists other than a collection of titbits around their origins, love affairs, and hedonistic approach to life.

Both Piaf and Brel died young, just short of the age of fifty, but their influence on not just French music but internationally has been immense. Piaf herself has been characterised on both stage and screen in biographical works (Pam Gems’ musical play “Piaf” and Olivier Dahan’s film “La vie en rose”, and Brel has been brought to a wider public through the English language revue of his music entitled “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”.

This one-woman show, filmed in a small venue with a largely older audience and featuring off-stage musical accompaniment, is filled with well-chosen songs: this is a shorter version of the show than the one which has toured internationally and played previously in Edinburgh, running at forty-seven minutes. Gall is a vibrant and lively personality who clearly admires and reveres her subjects and the time in which they were first famous.

By the time the audience is invited to join in a sing-song version of “Non, je ne regrette rien”, this has the feel of a nostalgic and affectionate piece of musical cabaret, bringing people together through the music and lyrics of a prime songwriter and a gifted interpreter, sieved and sifted, and delivered to the stage by a performer who has curated and crafted an excellent and varied list of material to do justice to both.

Did this touch me as much as when I first heard Piaf sing, or heard the work of Brel? No, because they are unique and in Piaf’s case, her own story was in the voice she projected. Gall has the style and substance to pay homage to these songs and performers, but I feel she is best in Brel’s story songs than in the plaintive muses on “l’amour”.

The greatest moment for me was hearing the real voices of Brel and Piaf, as Gall sings along with them at the end, with the Piaf piece being one of my all-time favourites, “L’hymne a l’amour”, also known as “If You Love Me, Really Love Me”. This song was co-written by Piaf and dedicated to the boxer Marcel Cerdan (1916-1949), often thought to be the love of her life.  Hearing it in this setting, brought into the present, was where the magic really happened.

Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert is available at Online@TheSpaceUK until the end of January –  

Reviewer: Louise Penn

Reviewed:12th January 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★