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  • Lucy Wainwright
  • Max Jury
Philharmonic Hall 13/7/17

Lustrous, baroque orchestrations are one of RUFUS WAINWRIGHT’s hallmarks, but tonight, with only a piano (albeit a Rolls Royce amongst pianos, the Philharmonic’s Steinway) and a sparingly used guitar, there’s a chance to enjoy the sheer breadth of the Canadian polymusician’s substance-over-style songwriting, and focus on his bohemian, otherworldly lyrics. Speaking – or singing – of which, considering his signature sound includes slightly slurred, patrician diction, every word is clear. The voice, gravelly and showing the patina of age, also packs some power behind the long, stratospheric notes, showing no sign of weakness at either end of a set lasting just short of two hours.

He’s not quite reached grand old dame status yet, but Gay Messiah, Matinée Idol, and Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk acquire real poignancy with the retrospection of middle age, as if Wainwright has come to inhabit the characters of his youthful songs more truthfully than he intended when he wrote them.

The piano-playing gently dazzles throughout, but it’s still a real surprise when, amid flashing blue lights, the Prima Donna starts vamping in best Nosferatu style, delivering a Vincent Price-esque monologue about what he found in his dressing room: “Sequins… feathers on the floor. I thought… oh God, she’s here, it’s her…” (cometh the dry ice, cometh the confetti cannon) “…it’s – Liza Minelli!” It’s really LUCY WAINWRIGHT, garishly made up but still looking considerably more human than Minelli herself, to duet on Me And Liza. This display of high camp is brought low by the devastating chords of Mozart’s finale to Don Giovanni and the appearance of Judy-Garland-as-Dorothy (first support act MAX JURY), singing, to Mozart’s music, a message of filial doom. As Rufus quips earlier when introducing Les Feux d’Artifice from his first opera Prima Donna, “it’s not gay at all.”

Going To A Town, from underrepresented 2007 album Release The Stars, is recast as an almost literal slow burner after that frenetic half hour. Stripped back, for Rufus, doesn’t necessarily mean simpler, and many songs are differently weighted in tonight’s piano/vocal arrangement. A case in point is how an aria from his opera can seem less ‘classical’ than the fin de siècle This Love Affair, but The Art Teacher remains quite possibly a perfect song in its original form. Musically simplest of all is his setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XX, negating any sense of competition between music and words. It works, as each limpid beat almost hesitates to be played alongside the finest poetry in English.

Tonight is a Best Of rather than a Greatest Hits – one-handed habanera Vibrate is the title track of his new retrospective release – but what a catalogue there is to choose from. Almost every mood is covered, which makes the late-night crooning of Poses another string to his bow. Crooning is just about the only thing Rufus Wainwright hasn’t done tonight and, as he says, “I’d like to see Judy Garland do that.”

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