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Björk’s Orchestral tour review — avant-garde electronica captivatingly reimagined

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Mournful, swarming strings sounded, cueing “Stonemilker”, as Björk sauntered on stage at Berlin’s Waldbühne (German for forest theatre), an amphitheatre-style stadium engulfed by trees, for the opening of the next stop in her Orchestral tour. It’s an appropriately folkloric venue for an artist who embroiders her avant-garde music with themes of flora and fauna.

Delayed for two years, the concept behind Orchestral was an “unplugged” concert series that presented stripped-back acoustic string arrangements of the Icelandic artist’s works, alongside local collaborators. On Friday she was joined by the string section of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (under conductor Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason). “There are more locals on the stage than Icelandic people, and I would like to point that out!” Björk chirped.

Many of the songs fared remarkably well without electronic beats, especially “Hunter” and “Isobel”. In its orchestral reimagining, “Hunter” was sluggish and slurring, sliding notes rendering the song more sinister than in its original outing 25 years ago. Throughout the concert, the orchestra dextrously mimicked the glitches and microbeats (such as the sound of shuffling cards and ice cracking) in her albums by employing techniques such as pizzicato.

There were limitations to the capacity of the orchestra to replicate the sounds of Icelandic natural phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions, snowstorms and geysers, which are central to 1997’s Homogenic and 2015’s Vulnicura. Perhaps the point was not to emulate but to reimagine.

Björk’s soaring voice remained extraordinary, expressive and clear. She sang unaccompanied by back-up singers or choirs and sounded almost identical to studio recordings from decades earlier. From high belting to spoken-word whispers, her voice shifted rapidly, conveying rage, sorrow and elation, often in exaggerated, theatrical ways.

Some songs didn’t work as well without the edge that volcanic beats provide. The stuttering “I’ve Seen It All” — originally recorded as a duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke — was less captivating without those beats and Yorke’s accompaniment. The same can be said for the unnaturally quiet “Aurora”, whose fragility on record didn’t transfer so well to an orchestral stadium setting.

Björk is renowned for her idiosyncratic aesthetic, and on Friday she was wearing an intricate silver mask (by her co-creative director, James Merry), with orchid-like decorations. While there is something anarchic in her wearing a mask just as we can take off ours, it would have been better if her ethereal singing were accompanied by the actorly vulnerability and expressiveness she is more than capable of delivering.

★★★★☆

Touring Europe and South America to November 13, bjorktour.com

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