Thomas Oliemans walked onto the stage, his tie loosened. He sat at the piano and launched into Sous le ciel de Paris, a French classic recorded by a list of chanson greats, including Édith Piaf. A couple of bars into the song you forgot that you were listening to Thomas Oliemans, operatic baritone and Lieder interpreter. Thomas Oliemans the chanson singer (and pianist) is that good.

Thomas Oliemans
© Marco Borggreve

Now that Dutch venues have reopened, the summer concert series at the Concertgebouw is in full swing. Well, full swing under Covid rules. At the moment most concerts are one hour long, to avoid intermissions. A concert is usually given twice on the same evening to socially distanced audiences. Oliemans certainly made the most of that one hour. He only paused to address the public once, when he introduced the two songs that gave this programme of chansons its name, Formidable.  

The two numbers, although belonging to the same tradition, couldn’t be more different in tone. Charles Aznavour’s For me... formidable is a frothy, jazzy declaration of love, while Formidable, by the Belgian singer and rapper Stromae, is steeped in bitterness and self-loathing. Oliemans, who was in fine vocal form, transitioned smoothly from the first song to the second, hitting upon exactly the right mood for each one.   

To evergreens such as Boum! and La Mer, both by Charles Trenet, Oliemans brought the interpretative energy that makes his operatic characters so vibrant. And, proficiently accompanying himself on the piano, he gave pensive numbers such as the smarting Dis, quand reviendras‐tu? an urgent intimacy. These quieter moments proved essential to an evening full of sweeping passions and, it has to be said, decibel overload during some of the finales. 

Because Oliemans and his piano were not alone. His vocals were lavishly upholstered by the strings of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, led by violinist Candida Thompson. And they, in turn, were complemented by percussion, a mellifluous trumpet and, for that quintessential Frenchness, an accordion.

This instrumental configuration really came into its own in Gilbert Bécaud’s Et maintenant, better known in the English-speaking world as What Now, My Love? Propelled by the rhythms of Ravel’s Boléro, the song rises gradually to a stirring climax. For this crowd-pleaser Bert van den Brink temporarily abandoned his accordion to let loose on the piano. Oliemans pinned his broken heart on his sleeve, utterly sincere but never saccharine. With his crisp diction and carrying power, he had no problem being heard over the layered richness of the strings.  

Although these perennial numbers don’t need much help, the varying textures of the arrangements, from symphonic gloss to piano bar simplicity, kept things interesting. A particularly diverting surprise was the neoclassical orchestral introduction to Les Moulins de mon coeur (The Windmills of Your Mind). The invigorating pace of the concert, however, must be chiefly credited to Oliemans himself and the uncomplicated way in which he communicates through this repertoire, which clearly means a lot to him. Fortunately, there was no encore after his heartfelt rendition of Jacques Brel’s Les Prénoms de Paris. It was the perfect number with which to send the audience off on a high.