Micheline Sings Brel

Lennox Theatre, October 5 

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Micheline Van Hautem. Photo: Marie Jose Eldering.

To hear a concert of Jacques Brel songs less than two days after witnessing Sondheim On Sondheim was to relish the differences between these two dazzling lyricists and resourceful composers who were born a year apart. Where Sondheim’s songs are all refinement, wit and wistfulness, Brel’s are blood, thunder, rawness and despair.

Micheline Van Hautem is a Brel specialist. Like him, she is Belgian, and on her many previous visits to Australia she has revealed a flair for the theatre inherent in his songs. As was the case on her last tour she was accompanied by the endlessly versatile Sydney musician Ben Hauptmann on acoustic guitars.

The opening Voir un ami pleurer was unremarkable, but she hit just the right note of tenderness for La chanson des vieux amants. Mathilde rode on a striking groove from Hauptmann, and Van Hautem wrung tiny drops of sadness from the delicate Les Vieux.

The masterpieces were clustered at the end. Even after thousands of renditions she could pick at the scab of Ne Me Quitte Pas and still make it bleed desolation. She once more unleashed the feisty, caterwauling devil within for Le diable, even if it has lost a little of the fire it had when the pianist/accordionist Frederik Caelen was her collaborator. The song she co-wrote with him, City of Diamonds, sounded just as apt, just as worthy in the midst of Brel’s classics, and there can be no higher praise.

Hauptmann’s tango-esque accompaniment to Au suivant was brilliant, and that for the inevitable Amsterdam was a teeming sea of melodic flashes, while Van Hautem shredded the lyric apart, until ghosts of the song’s characters seemed to crowd the room.

If Sondheim’s technical mastery is especially evident in his precision in the use of rhymes, Brel’s is in his astute use of key changes, not just to break up a song, but to advance, dramatise and intensify the sentiment being expressed.