15 AUGUST 1958, Page 7

I WENT to the recital given at the Albert Hall

by Paul Robeson (his book is reviewed elsewhere in this issue). It was a depressing experience. For one thing, I had not been to the Albert Hall for a couple of years, and although I had remembered the hideousness only too well, I had forgotten the smell—an all-pervading stench of stale tea and inadequate plumbing. The audience was pretty depressing, too; though many were there for musical reasons, many were there for political ones, and these last applauded frantically at the smallest provocation and screamed with delight at the political references in Robeson's speech. But most depressing of all was the singing. Robeson to me was only a legend, apart from gramophone records and his pre-war films, but the night before the concert I had heard him sur- vive a radio interview of staggering idiocy ('Tell me, Mr. Robeson, why do coloured people, and Ritssians have such wonderful bass voices?') by somebody called Marta Eitler, and he had finished that with a wonderfully resonant per- formance of 'Balm in Gilead.' But away from the studio and my hi-fi, he was only a shadow of his greatness. He used a microphone, and even with its aid there was a rough edge to his voice whenever he put any pressure on it; talk of his singing Boris Godunov while he is here is obviously ridiculous. The bottom notes of the 'Volga Boat- men' he couldn't reach at all, and he never attempted anything (bar a couple of falsetto notes in 'Oh, no John') above the bottom quarter of his voice. Worst of all, perhaps, was the rewriting of 01' Man River. Instead of `Git a little drunk, and you lands in jail,' it was 'Show a little grit and you lands in jail,' and in place of 1 gits weary, an' sick of tryin' I'm tired of livin', and scared of dyin' he gave us 1 goes on laughin', instead of cryin' I'll keep on laughin' until I'm dying'.

Only at the end, when he recited some trash by Pablo Neruda, did he appear a great artist; even if his singing days are over, it was clear that he could have many great acting days yet.