It’s a mark of the prestigious nature of Cardiff’s Festival of Voice that it’s managed to attract some of the most iconic names in music.
For more than half a century Van Morrison has been one of the world’s most exciting songwriters and performers, while Bryn Terfel is an opera great who judiciously strays into other genres when appropriate opportunities arise. To get them together for the first time is a huge achievement.
Morrison, who will turn 71 in August, retains the distinctive and versatile voice which has enabled him to master a range of musical styles, from rock and roll and soul to jazz and blues. His whole career has been something of a spiritual quest through music, although there have been periods when he has let up on the spiritual development and simply enjoyed singing and playing with his band. Part of the fun of attending his concerts is that you can never be sure what the predominant genre will be.
At the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, Morrison was very much into jazz mode, immediately picking up a saxophone for the opening instrumental. He’s never been an artist to simply belt out his old hits in the same style as they were recorded. As the show progressed, he and his supremely tight four-piece band plus backing female vocalist created what were effectively new versions of songs written decades ago. They notably added an extra dimension to one of Morrison’s most contemplative songs, Enlightenment, turning it into what could become a jazz classic.
Always one to evoke his roots in East Belfast, there was considerable poignancy in his decision to include in his set a gospel hymn he recorded for his 1991 album Hymns to the Silence. The day before the Cardiff gig he had sung By His Grace at his mother’s funeral.
This was followed by a superlative version of Moondance, one of his most famous songs, which at one point contained hints of the pre-war Rodgers and Hart number My Funny Valentine, which Morrison has also recorded.
The eagerly anticipated arrival on stage of Bryn Terfel was announced by Morrison in a way those used to his habitually taciturn manner found positively genial: “You lucky people!” he exclaimed, as the Welsh opera legend towered over him like a benevolent giant. Following the precedent set by Morrison’s recent Duets album, the two of them sang two songs together: Morrison’s own The Beauty of the Days Gone By and the traditional American folk song Shenandoah. The contrast between their respective voices created interpretations that were original and successful.
After Bryn Terfel’s departure, Morrison gave us some further reworked classics, including Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria, the latter dating from 1964, when he was still a member of Them. Gloria became the show’s finale, miraculously morphing into free form jazz that enabled the band members to show off their distinctive musical skills.
On the strength of this appearance, we can hope for many more years of virtuoso performances from Morrison, who still manages to use his voice as if it was a musical instrument.