Hidden shallows

Music - Peter Conrad on recordings of an old poseur that reveal more than he might have liked

Noel Coward, who invented himself, is undergoing another reinvention. By sheer force of will, the boy from Teddington became a supercilious dandy, uttering epigrams in a voice constricted by snooty artifice; the umlaut he affected, which made no difference to the pronunciation of his name, was as otiose as a pair of strategically positioned beauty spots. Recent theatrical revivals have revealed what lay behind the armoury of mannerism. Rupert Everett's performance in The Vortex showed Coward creating a Hamlet for the jazz age, mother-obsessed and drug-addicted, and Corin Redgrave in Song at Twilight exposed the strain of a man who at once exploited and disavowed his own homosexuality. Now the tenor Ian Bostridge, in a new disc of Coward songs, has undertaken to make audible the anger and defiance that underlay the old poseur's self-fabrication.

Bostridge needed, he explains in introducing the disc, to "find a voice" for these songs. His own voice is reedy, softly insinuating and eerily androgynous - ideal for the perversity of Britten's enchanters (like Quint in The Turn of the Screw, which he recently recorded with Daniel Harding), and close enough to the drawling languor of Coward's cabaret act. But the voice he found for at least two of the songs has an unaccustomed harshness, justifying the analogy he proposes between Coward and Kurt Weill.

In "Twentieth Century Blues", Bos-tridge sacrifices his usual prissily precise articulation in order to slur and syncopate; his tone turns acid, and he ends the song with a gruff drunken shout. He rattles through "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" with scornful haste, brilliantly characterising the contempt of the colonists for the sluggish, drowsy natives, and underlining the problem of national psychology raised by the piece: how ever did a people as effete as the English manage to conquer most of the earth? It's impossible to hear his performance without recalling T E Lawrence, preening in Arab drag as he mobilised his henchmen for a massacre. No wonder a lady mayoress in New Zealand, after attending one of Coward's concerts, ticked him off for letting down the empire.

Bostridge's view of Coward as a Brechtian aggressor, whose waspish words kept him at an alienated distance from the cheap, potent opiate of music, cannot go much further than this. Coward was no revolutionary. When Sophie Daneman, Bostridge's partner in the duet "A Room with a View", says that she'd like "to set your world to rights", she disqualifies herself from continuing their affair. Weill and Brecht took a grim pleasure in organising days of judgement: the execution in The Threepenny Opera, God's verdict on the orgiastic city in Mahagonny. Coward, however, wanted the feckless, irresponsible revels to continue for ever. Elyot and Amanda in Private Lives are happy hurling pillows at each other, but you can't imagine them cohabiting (let alone having sex). Coward spent the final decades of his life lamenting that the party had been called off. That whining refrain recurs a little too often in these songs, and measures the narrowness of their emotional range.

It doesn't help that the world-weary nostalgia is also a pose, like the tragic attitudinising of the puppet in "Parisian Pierrot" (one of Coward's best songs, recalling a visit to a louche Berlin nightclub in the 1920s). Joan Sutherland, who was Coward's neighbour in tax-free Switzerland, once told me his verdict on her acting in a ravaged operatic mad scene.

"Darling," he said to her, "you're always so sincere." As she understood, this was not a compliment. Her own 1966 album of Coward songs suffers from that very sincerity: a voice as opulent as hers can't sound brittle or ironic. Bostridge is best in songs that are defensively flippant, guarding against the vulgarity of unfeigned emotion. In excerpts from the Cochran revue Words and Music, he entreats a lover to remain "casual" and keep their intermittent association "a gay thing", and then goes on - in another unerotic duet with Sophie Daneman - to curl his lip disdainfully at spring: the grass is too brashly green, and the livestock behave with grotesque abandon.

Though Bostridge may not have proved his case about Coward the social critic, he trains a witty insight on Coward's over-cultivated, case-hardened persona. The songs now blurt out what the composer thought they were so cleverly concealing. "I Travel Alone", which Bostridge calls Coward's "anthem", becomes a whispered, wounded confession: imagine "My Way" sung by a swishy Sinatra. Here Coward disentangles himself from "remembered loves", and takes pride in his lonely, rootless autonomy - until the pretence collapses in Bostridge's fluty, almost falsettoish utterance of the last "alone", which makes a wistful appeal for companionship and understanding.

With his technical skill and interpretative intelligence, Bostridge discovers more in these facile compositions than Coward might have wished.

The cheap music becomes a little pricier when he sings it, and the frivolous, evasive words disclose hidden shallows.

Ian Bostridge's The Noel Coward Songbook is released by EMI Classics