REVIEW: Pet Shop Boys with the BBC Philharmonic

Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys performs with the BBC Philharmonic orchestra.
Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys performs with the BBC Philharmonic orchestra.
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FROM writing theatre and ballet scores to providing the soundtrack to vintage Soviet propaganda films, the Pet Shop Boys are no strangers to high culture, despite being a mainstream pop institution.

So to cross the Peaks to find Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe teaming up with the BBC Philharmonic orchestra isn’t a strange proposition by any means.

But even the boys themselves seemed awed by the results of this one-off partnership, which saw them dusting off rarely-played songs and a few hits from their three-decade career, adorning the usual PSB electronics with lavish instrumentation arranged for the grand ensemble by composer Sven Helbig.

Just 250 people out of a record 25,000 who applied scooped tickets to the intimate concert at the corporation’s shiny new northern headquarters in MediaCity on Salford Quays, and the lucky few were treated to a hugely impressive 90-minute performance.

Neil, front of stage and eye-to-eye with the tiny audience, had dressed for the occasion in sleek black suit and tie, while Chris remained resolutely casual in jeans, tucked away at the back sporting sunglasses.

And seated inconspicuously to the right was a special guest in the shape of local lad Johnny Marr, late of The Smiths, Cribs and Modest Mouse - as well as PSB-collaborating group Electronic.

The set list itself was a jaunt around the edges of the Pet Shop Boys canon, beginning with a stirring Tonight Is Forever which notched up the brisk horn motif, and continuing through the dramatic Can You Forgive Her and new single Memory Of The Future.

A magnificent It Couldn’t Happen Here - according to Neil, played live for the first time ever - was a strong contender for the highlight of the evening, the Philharmonic bringing the best out of David Lynch cohort Angelo Badalamenti’s dense, sinister original arrangement.

Mr Marr, as ever, was a restrained presence, adding deft touches here and there. Breathing Space benefited from his delicate acoustic guitar, New York City Boy received the full wah-wah disco treatment and This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave was given an extra boost, Johnny having played on the original recording back in 1990.

We also got a preview of another high culture detour - an intriguing sample of a new orchestral piece about computer pioneer Alan Turing.

It was all over too soon, but not until West End Girls received its customary airing, prefaced by an immense orchestral introduction which almost took the roof off, and lifted further with vocals from the Manchester Chamber Choir.

The raised eyebrows between Tennant and Marr said it all. An unforgettable night.

By Richard Blackledge