Classical music clubbing

Helen Wallace tries out the Yellow Lounge in Bermondsey Street Tunnels with its heady mix of bright lights, beer...and baroque

I headed down Bermondsey Street Tunnel on the wettest evening in July to find hundreds of (mainly young) people queuing to get into Decca’s Yellow Lounge, a classical club, starring guitarist Miloš Karadaglić and Danielle de Niese. Both are big draws, but it was still a pretty astonishing turn out for this London Bridge dive. Was it rent-a-crowd? All was revealed as I heard the ushers walking down the queue saying ‘press’, ‘guests’ or ‘facebook like’ – at which one late middle-aged couple expressed utter incomprehension. And they say classical music is inaccessible…

In a surreal moment de Niese herself appeared in a blaze of flash photography with the handsome young Montenegrin Karadaglić, who were both whisked away in a bespoke Deutsche Grammophon taxi. It was just like the glory days: Karajan would have approved. But why were they leaving now – just as we were arriving?

The reason, of course, was that a lot of pop-concert-style waiting lay ahead. Inside the railway arch club it was hot, damp, dark, crowded with two hopelessly ill-attended bars (more queuing) and not a great deal of lounging – I spotted one sofa. Like a real club, in other words, except the DJs were playing Schubert’s Quintet in C on loop.

With doors opening at 7pm and the first bit of performance at 8.45pm one began to feel the Prommers have it easy. Karadaglić finally pushed his way through to the small stage and charmed the assembly with a sparkling Prelude from Villa-Lobos, followed by Albéniz’s Iberian tour de force, Asturias. But the guitar was clearly protesting against the humidity and he had to re-tune strings as he played. He finished his bijou-set (you don’t get much for your money at Yellow Lounge) with Domeniconi’s virtuosic showpiece Koyunbaba. I only glimpsed him through the forest of iPhones videoing and taking pictures while those in the main bar probably saw more on the screen.

Another wait and the distinct shape of a theorbo case emerged through the crowd. This was Arcangelo arriving, Jonathan Cohen’s enterprising Baroque outfit. Somehow they squeezed on stage (violins standing) and left room for the star attraction herself, Danielle de Niese, who came on sheathed in black lace and perched on heart-stopping heels.

She has that gleaming, flawless beauty which makes her seem almost unreal – Hollywood eat your heart out – and an animal magnetism to match. She began on a high note with Handel’s ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ as the trains rumbled overhead, a fine ‘Ombra mai fu’, before descending into the suicidal depths of Purcell’s ‘When I am laid in earth’. The vibrato was heavy – too much so in her Dowland songs – but her artistry powerful.

As one informed listener beside me noted, she doesn’t have the biggest voice, but could command this space royally, and won over her audience with her Valley girl enthusiasm: ‘I’m so excited to be here’, ‘this is so cool!’ Best of all was Monteverdi’s scherzo ‘Quel sguardo sdegnosetto’ where instrumentalists improvised and she teased and toyed with the melody with infectious spontaneity. The climax came with Cleopatra’s show-stopping final aria from Giuilio Cesare, which she delivered with aplomb complete with groovy moves. This girl could make Havergal Brian seem sexy. That more or less knocked her out for the final number with Karadaglić, Villa-Lobos’s vocalise Bachiana Brasileira No. 5. She may have fought for breath, but she’d conquered the crowd.

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine