Review: Susanna Starling

“Susanna Starling sings her own original material plus unique interpretations of English folk and vintage jazz/cabaret, accompanied by nothing but her upright double bass.”

With this description from Susanna Starling’s new website in mind, I arrived at her gig at Warneford Chapel (in association with OCM) with a touch of scepticism, mixed with a curiosity to hear just what this would be like. In short, Susanna Starling does not disappoint: in the small setting of the nineteenth-century Warneford Chapel with its low light, intimate space, and oak panelling, the combination of voice and double bass was beautiful. The understandable nerves produced by such an intensely small performance space evaporated soon enough, and Starling’s candid patter between songs gave a real sense of invitation for the audience to engage, not just watch.

Susanna Starling
Susanna Starling

Her voice, although occasionally on the losing side of the battle between it, her instrument, and the acoustic, has a refreshingly controlled sound, resisting the urge to simply belt out the songs, but rather going for something distinctly more understated and ‘folky’. That said, there is an unmistakable power behind the sound, which was brilliantly unleashed in her rendition of Kurt Weill’s ‘Mack the Knife’, where her flair as a dramatic performer really shone through, with the added bonus of a virtually flawless transition from singing in English to German. Another particular highlight of the first half was a set comprised of George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s ‘Feeling Good’ – her upper range was a real joy, again showing consummate control of her voice, and presenting the two songs side by side in a totally different, but fabulous, style to most other versions. Of her own material, the setting of W.B. Yeates’s poem ‘Wandering Angus’ was a gorgeously lilting piece, never allowing the melody to upstage the words, and shows a glimpse of her talent as a songwriter as well as a performer.

The second half, where the Delly Welly Boot Band, resident of White Horse Live folk club in Stonesfield, joined Starling on the stage promised to be a continuation of the standard of the first. One of the few media clips I could find online was of Starling singing ‘The Bonnie Wee Lassie’ with them (below), and we were indeed treated to this particular number, a bluesy rendition of a traditional song that worked fantastically well, with sensitive accompaniment from the Band and the now expected brilliance of Starling herself. However, bearing in mind that the gig was advertised as Susanna Starling with the support of the Band, I wasn’t sure about the end result of the half. While the Band are obviously great instrumentalists, in particular their fiddler Judith Henderson, it stopped feeling like Starling’s gig, and the mix of music from traditional songs and a couple of instrumental numbers, to Led Zeppelin and Leonard Cohen felt overly broad.

The two instrumental sets, the first a pretty Cornish hornpipe called Duw Genes (Cornish for ‘goodbye’) and the second an unnamed tune, were expertly led by Henderson, and branched out from the usual Irish and Scottish folk genres favoured by many fiddlers, showing her interest in Eastern European and Middle Eastern traditions. Other than that, the second half seemed very much weighted towards the more popular genres and away from the folk/jazz fusion of the first. As ambitious as it was to attempt such a wide range of genres, it felt like the vocal abilities of the Band fell a little short of the demands of such a spread, and may have benefited from reining in the variety, or allowing Starling to lead the vocals more often. She seemed to be pushed a little more into the background, and I was disappointed that she only really got two songs in which to shine in the second half of a gig that was ostensibly hers. There is no doubt as to the talent in the room from all the players, but I did leave feeling like I could have heard more from Starling herself.

For all that, the gig was a real joy to attend, and Susanna Starling proved my scepticism about the potential of the voice and bass combination completely wrong. I could have happily listened to her for the full hour, and I can’t wait to see what she does next with the combination of genres and her own material. The balance between her and the Band may not have been quite ideal, but nonetheless, it was an hour of great music by fantastically talented players, with Starling’s talent shining through, and definitely setting her up as one to watch out for in the future.

C. E. Queripel

For more information about Susanna Starling, please visit her website; Oxford Contemporary Music’s upcoming events can be viewed on their website.

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