The Telegraph

I’ve never seen the Albert Hall react quite like this

I have not witnessed an audience response at the Royal Albert Hall quite as rapt and intense as for maverick Icelandic chanteuse Björk. The standing crowd on the arena floor pressed against stage barriers in silent awe, as if bearing witness to a religious visitation. “I think I might cry,” whispered a woman next to me, before the singer had even made a sound.

There was a strange vulnerability to Björk’s otherworldly appearance, standing alone in front of a seated orchestra, facial features altered by an extraordinary masquerade mask with tendrils twisting away from head and cheeks. In her white dress and yellow stole, she resembled some kind of pale, alien flower being. When she reached out her arms in imploring gesture, the audience reached back, in rippling waves of movement.

This was Björk’s first appearance in the UK since the release last year of Vulnicura, her extraordinary break-up album, detailing the end of a relationship with songs of raw emotion. An exhibition currently at Somerset House entitled Björk Digital explores heavily electronic versions of this material in immersive virtual reality.

This accompanying live show, though, was surprisingly devoid of technological wonder, a performance stripped to its acoustic bones. The massed violins, violas, cellos and double basses of the Aurora string orchestra, conducted by Andrew Gourlay, essayed delicate arrangements of material that winds and unfolds with a sense of dramatic tension rather than melodic luxury.

There can be no disputing Björk’s vocal control as she precisely enunciated every note and word, but she has such a highly idiosyncratic sense of melody and phrasing that the effect was like listening to spells and incantations rather than songs. Black Lake was devastating, with violins holding single notes for long passages that gradually died away to silence until Björk started singing again, uttering lines as brutal as “my soul is torn apart, my spirit is broken”.

With the music stripped of the electronica that gave the album its rhythmic spine, the listener was forced to confront the dark heart of the material. It was like witnessing one side of a vicious domestic dispute and at times had the slightly perverse effect of making me feel sorry for the other party. The tension between the rawness of the emotion, the alluring beauty of the string arrangements and the formal elegance of the classical presentation was utterly hypnotic.

After an interval, Björk returned dressed like some kind of glowing sea anemone, and seemed in more playful mood as she performed a few songs from her back catalogue. She laughed with delight during Pagan Poetry, when the audience spontaneously started singing a low counterpoint harmony.

Given the weirdness and intensity of the material, there was little danger of it turning into a karaoke knees up. But when Björk finally left the stage after an exultant version of Pluto, the crowd finally broke its rapt spell, stamping the floor and taking up the song’s “ooh-oooh-ooh-ooh” chant, refusing to move even after the house lights came on, until the Icelander relented and returned, alone, to thank London, “my second musical home”.

Neil McCormick

publié dans The Telegraph - 22.09.2016

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