Penguin Cafe [Darren Barry (violin), Cass Browne & Pete Radcliffe (percussion), Tom Chichester-Clarke (piano / harmonium / cuatro / guitar / melodica), Neil Codling (piano / guitar / ukulele / harmonium / cuatro), Vincent Greene (viola), Oli Langford (violin), Des Murphy (ukulele), Andrew Waterworth (double bass), Rebecca Waterworth (cello), Arthur Jeffes (piano / harmonium / cuatro / whistles)]
Kathryn Tickell (fiddle / Northumbrian smallpipes)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 8 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
When Simon Jeffes initiated what was then the Penguin Cafe Orchestra in 1972, he might not have foreseen that, almost four decades on, its latest incarnation would attract one of the best attended and most diverse late-night Proms of the season. But then, the PCO was always likely to attract appeal across the musical spectrum – negotiating supposed boundaries between classical, folk, jazz and pop with an effortlessness few such later outfits – ‘fusion’ or otherwise – have matched. Jeffes’s untimely death in 1997 left behind a legacy too substantial and, above all, enjoyable to be consigned to studio recordings and revivals of the ballet “Still Life at the Penguin Cafe”: the present line-up took shape three years ago under the aegis of his son Arthur, whose dedication to this music was evident at every stage of this 75-minute Proms set.
Penguin Cafe was never going to fill the Royal Albert Hall in the way that such as Cream and King Crimson have done with a vengeance. The set-list focussed on more upbeat numbers and what one wit was heard to describe as “Penguin pleasers”, though the new and varied were by no means neglected. After “Scherzo and Trio” had set things in motion with its jazzy take on a distinctly British Minimalism, “From the Colonies” upped the ante with its lively combination of counterpoint and calypso, before the spiralling jig of “Swing the Cat” brought along Kathryn Tickell – a sometime collaborator with the original PCO and herself an artist of broad sympathies – in her guise as fiddle-player; remaining for the off-the-wall Bachian syncopation of “Music for a Found Harmonium”, one of Jeffes’s most enduring numbers. The eddying wistfulness of “Steady State” was a reminder that PCO can ‘do’ chamber music of real poise, and as readily as the shifting repetitions of “Perpetuum Mobile” brought out a collective virtuosity. The aching lyricism of “Oscar Tango” still seemed to be at odds with its title, while the genial foursome of “Paul’s Dance” still provided a test of unanimity from which the players emerged unfazed.
After this, the catchy immediacy of “In the Back of a Taxi” was the more appropriate (as was its title), while the teasing interplay of “Pale Peach Jukebox” offered delights of a hardly less evocative kind. The tripping modality of “Organum” brought some bracing Northumbrian piping from Tickell, who stayed on for the first outings of two new pieces: “Landau” made the most of its vividly pulsating groove, while “Bramble May” offered an equally attractive take on folk idioms with its modal rumination. By contrast, the playful vamp of “Telephone and Rubber Band” – surely the most intrinsically musical inspiration to come out of a receiver – remains the nearest thing to a Penguin ‘hit’, though the Baroque folksiness of “Giles Farnaby’s Dream” might yet run it close – not least with Tickell’s fiddle playing to the fore, as it was during the effervescent stomp of “Salty Bean Fumble” that brought about an uninhibited finale.
The response was as enthusiastic as music and musicians warranted, yet Jeffes Junior rounded off the evening in understated fashion with his piano piece “Harry Piers” – a touching yet unaffected tribute to his father (whose own album of piano pieces was one of his last projects) which brought the evening to a gentle and contented close. A reminder, too, that Jeffes Senior first envisaged Penguin Cafe music as a means of transcending the soullessness of modern existence. Thirty-eight years later and that vision might not be about to change the world, but it can help to make it a more pleasurable place.