j and w

Aled Jones and Russell Watson, in Harmony.

In Harmony

Russell Watson and Aled Jones

Warwick Arts Centre

I went with some trepidation to this concert in the fabulously restored, Butterworth Hall at Warwick University. I’d never imagined myself reviewing such an (as I wrongly thought) cheesy occasion. I feared something weepy, audience-pleasing, limp, sentimental, almost patronising.

They were here to promote their new joint album, Back In Harmony-, released on 1st November. To be honest, in attending I was simply being nosy: just how good were these popular, frequent ‘crossover’ artists? Did this duo merit the hype? Did they actually harmonise together successfully (as they modestly feared they might not). Could they actually sing – preferably without microphones? Were they genuine entertainers?

But I ought to have guessed, should have known – and really, deep down, I did. I had been won round by Russell Watson not when I heard him warble, but when I listened to an interview he did for (as I recall) Radio 4 or 5. He was enchanting, modest, amusing, utterly un-full of himself. A real, genuine, rather inspiring person. Only one other I had heard on the programme equalled or bettered him: Sir Tom Jones. The same modesty, the same qualities.

Aled Jones, not quite 50, and as North Welsh (Anglesey: and delightful as Jones is South (Pontypridd), has been through a silky period, which he’s nearly grown out of. As a boy, his was the best voice by miles of many talented young alternatives. His reading of what he sang was incredibly mature; the genuineness of his belief (still with him) nurtured as a chorister at Bangor Cathedral:

George Guest, legendary creator and fashioner of the choir of St. John’s Cambridge, played a part in his early recognition, Hefina Orwig Evans, a lady in the North Wales congregation, having written to say (something like) ‘There is a boy in this choir whose voice is pure heaven/absolutely divine’. And it was.

Eisteddfod triumphs followed, and his earliest discs for a Welsh label (with other companies added, some 16 discs in all). He was in fact a distinctive and recognisable boy soloist well before the UK charts-hitting ‘Walking the Air’, from Howard Blake’s music for the animated film ‘The Snowman’, brought him to a vast audience.

A timely duet of then and now as Aled Jones sings Walking in the Air with his younger self

It’s still to this day one of the best things he has done. But there was so much to choose from: a vast chorister repertoire, for a unique choirboy. 

Aled’s fabulous, instinctive use of portamento – a slide up or down from note to note, judiciously used, never overdone - was one of the elements that picked his voice out from the mass. His unbroken voice recordings are legendary. To some extent he has carried that into his baritone voice: at one early stage, on the verge of sickly. Where had this brilliant, dazzlingly intelligent - not just personable – boy gone?

But time has marched handsomely forward. Since, other boys have supplanted the great Aled - the brilliantly intelligent Conor Burrowes (St. Paul’s Cathedral under organist John Scott), and now a gifted choral conductor himself for example. See below.

Then the unbelievable Andrew Swait (Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum, under Ben Nicholas - especially Light of the World, and Songs of Innocence). Swait, wondrously paired with that supreme countertenor James Bowman; the TV-famed Anthony Way; and Cassian Pichler-Roca, yet another Tewkesbury Abbey offspring, schooled at Dean Close, who won BBC Radio 2’s Boy Chorister of the Year in 2018: a beguiling voice, gorgeous low timbres and an astonishing musical talent.

But Aled’s own reborn qualities, including projection (of course excellently captured on disc), have blossomed anew. The voice, as we heard at this concert, is now firmer, fuller, a wonderful, genuine, as ever stylish, baritone, strong in both high and deeper register. Aled has always been characterful, always touching. But for me, this concert was a revelation.

Both singers, notably Watson - an obvious home-grown wag,  playing off Jones’s upright, mock-straight man (‘Which of us is Eric, which Ernie?’; Laurel and Hardy came into it too) took pleasure in reminding us that Warwick Arts Centre was the climax – or the culmination – of their Great British Tour (only two gigs in Northern Ireland remained).

Flattery of course, but they certainly kept plenty in reserve for this finale. It was riveting, musically top-class, the pacing both of the music and of the intervening patter (of which there was plenty), the contrasts, all superbly judged. They were precisely, as their chosen title confirmed, ‘Back In Harmony’ – in approach, in personality, in musical finesse, Here, was real, wide-reaching talent; and my, did they entertain us exceptionally well.

j and w church

The church launched the career of Aled and Russell has often shone in popular sacred repertoire

Previously I had liked both as people, not entirely as voices.  Aled, besides his TV programmes, has made a considerable run of male voice discs. To hear him sing ‘Did you not hear my lady Go down the garden singing?, or Handel’s flawless ‘Where’er you walk…’, Jupiter’s adoring aria from Handel’s Semele, took one right back to the musical perfection of his adorable- and masterly - boyhood days.

Russell, too, to sample him on YouTube, has also moved on. He too has had his soapy, or soupy moments. He has also suffered, and mastered, terrible physical illness. Neither, it seems, is the case now.

Not least impressive at this concert – indeed an ‘event’, one might dub it - was the acute mind, and even more striking range of Watson’s singing voice. He soars on high like the promising young untrained tenor he started out as, yet he has a super low register too. This enabled not just him to descant above Aled’s firm vocal underlay, but for the Welsh no longer lad, now dad, alternating, to rise – even soar - above him. Such elegance, and excellence, made not only for variety. It exuded miraculously accomplished musicianship

I should add that the pair were immaculately turned out: the creases in their finely understated suits looked as if they had been put through an industrial stamping press.  A few too many shots of the duo in the programme: very pretty, a bit showy and samey, but the numbers (except no. 1, ‘Ave Maria’, attributed to Giulio Caccini but probably by Vladimir Vavilov), were listed without credits or printed history. They were, however, sometimes introduced, and rather well (the great, unpredictable American tenor Mario Lanza figured, for instance). Incidentally, the income from the £10 programmes went, thoughtfully, to charity.

Amid the joy of the banter, mutual ribbing and chaffing - what a polished comic duo they made – what of the repertoire itself?

Well, Russell has lots of experience singing in Italian, Puccini’s ‘Nessun dorma’ from his last opera, Turandot, was the number that got him on the road to fame in the first place. So the numbers like the ‘Caccini’, the enjoyably popular song ‘Funiculi Funicula’ and ‘Nella Fantasia’ – sung partly as solo, partly duet – were not only great fun, sung with oodles of character, but also beautifully enunciated, for Italian comes as naturally to Aled, who as a boy sang many sacred items in Latin, providing a secure foundation for singing in various languages (French, Spanish, Italian).

The mood changed from piece to piece, and that was one thing that made one so impressed with the pair’s programming (assuming the decisions rested with them). ‘In Flanders Field’, for example, is a wonderfully moving memorial piece relating to the fallen of the First World War. And it proved one of their most beautiful, sadly reflective yet celebratory numbers. What a delightful contrast with the following ‘Lucky Me’, the song immediately following, again one of their best offerings.

Yet picking out which shone out as the ‘best’ items in Russell and Aled’s concert – recital, one might almost say – seems gratuitous, because they were all superb.

Several have figured on Aled’s previous discs, and I dare say in some cases Russell’s too: Aled’s religious output is of course, for a presenter of BBC TV’s Songs of Praise, not surprisingly extensive. ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’, ‘You Raise Me Up’, ‘Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace’, ‘May The Good Lord Bless You And Keep You’, are all part of his regular concert and (especially) CD repertoire. A so-called ‘Hymn Medley’ proved a highlight, especially ‘I vow to thee, my country’, that magical melody prised out of Holst’s The Planets suite; and Russell descanting (he does it so well, drawing on a marvellous spread of tenor and baritone) over ‘Abide with me’, to tingles of xylophone (and later in the evening, intriguing hints of cymbal) from the utterly brilliant American-born percussionist and drummer, Lauren Kosty. The duelling pair shared the sundry stanzas of these with great beauty and sensitivity, qualities that pervaded their whole concert.

But then there were other treasures. ‘Shenandoah’ – curiously slightly muted at the start – came over with that wonderful (patriotic) fervour that so often graces (especially Russell’s) spirited output. ‘The Impossible Dream’ is one of his too, and if that too lacked a little rapture at the start, it crescendoed magnificently into a thrilling, warm version. And, of course, that is the point of the song: that it grows and blossoms and burgeons from a simple forlorn (‘impossible’) hope into a fabulous optimistic outpouring. So, in fact, this inspired reading did exactly what the song required.    

Here and there, such was the excitement of a passage, or a whole song, the two positively exploded. Neither of them really needed miking, as I confirmed when for the second half (as opposed to the mid-stalls in the first) I sat upstairs close to the stage. The sound was coming to me not from the two (very) large speakers over the auditorium stalls, a kind of artificial and often distorting stereo, but from the stage itself: I could hear them both, and it was humblingly moving – and exciting – to do so. Here were real artists, with a command of operatic delivery (we knew that about Russell), but now – it’s clear – with a mature voice like this, Aled Jones could walk on to Welsh National Opera’s stage tomorrow.

Both the pair were utterly at ease onstage, from time to time interacting with the audience – always very funny: indeed an easy match for genuinely professional comics. A blue/mauve/pink/red/turquoise/amber cyclorama (Lighting: Paddy Sollitt) successfully added atmosphere, and the follow-spots were consistently well-judged. The sequence of up to 19 numbers was pleasingly lightly miked – a measure these two talents’ perfectly adequate projection. There was a hint of vibrato, but satisfyingly little. Close up (I sat there second half) you could hear them clear as a bell, rather than from the two fractionally muffled speakers.

Special mention should go to the warm-up act, the widely gifted high soprano Natasha Hemmings. Whether posing for a kind of oriental number, or moving subtly to a large cluster of other songs, she supplied as inspiring a medley as one could have asked for. To be honest, I thought she might eclipse the other two, so expressive (with wonderful touches of melisma) and commanding was her singing (even when, occasionally, at full pelt). She pairs, on disc and in recital, classical and pop, and here she seemed enthralling in both. A treat to listen to.

Some of the accompaniment and arrangements (Mike Moran heading a roughly eight-strong ‘Russell Watson Ensemble’) were, I thought, pretty crappy. Lush where not required overscored, or just plain wrong for the two singers. Yet how wonderful they were when cut down to a minimum - e.g. strings, percussion, viola, or clarinet and sax (were the last two on tape?). More of that would have guaranteed this show nothing less than outstanding musically.

Russell’s input with ‘The Loveliest Night of the Year’ (this was Lanza) was quite lovely, with imaginative (not too much) portamento (as Aled above) and some rather special, surprisingly low bass-register detail. What range, what versatility, and what flair.

I’m so glad I went. It was one of my most enjoyable nights of the year.

Roderic Dunnett 

Aled Jones and Russell Watson’s second duet disc, Back In Harmony, was released on the BMG label this November a year after the release of their first, In Harmony.

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