When Burt Bacharach stepped onto the stage at Constitution Hall Thursday night, the 26-piece orchestra launched into "What the World Needs Now Is Love," one of many Burt Bacharach-Hal David chestnuts heard over the course of the evening. When Elvis Costello joined Bacharach soon after to deliver a dozen songs from their recently released album, Painted From Memory, it became apparent that this would be a night, as Costello put it, "for all of you who like to luxuriate in melancholy."
He was introducing "In the Darkest Place," one of the stronger Bacharach-Costello collaborations, a stark evocation of the impermanence of love and the permanence of loss. Others included the aching "My Thief," a palpably bleak "This House Is Empty Now" and "The Sweetest Punch," which benefited from a clever arrangement playing off the song's pugilist imagery.
In the '60s, when Bacharach and David were omniscient hitmakers for such singers as Dionne Warwick, Jackie DeShannon and Dusty Springfield, their complex but accessible songs were distinct enough to stand out in the radioscape of Motown and the British Invasion. At Constitution Hall, however, that formula was betrayed by the very accumulation of songs, both old and new. After a while you could anticipate the direction of a melody before the tuxedo-clad Costello crooned it, particularly on new works like "Painted From Memory" and "The Long Division."
Bacharach and Costello both favor long, snaking themes with extreme dynamic peaks and valleys. Singing one of their tunes can be like traveling down a particularly difficult mountain road full of unexpected twists and turns. At times, the strain was evident on Costello, particularly on the high notes.
Costello and longtime associate Steve Nieve offered tastefully orchestrated baroque-and-roll versions of Costello's "Accidents Will Happen" and "Alison." His aim was truer in guitar-piano duet renderings of "Veronica" and "Almost Blue," a torch song that, in this particular show, seemed melodically malnourished.
Bacharach, who spent much of the concert at the piano and off-handedly conducting the orchestra, had his own showcase, which he crowded with snippets from dozens of memorable hits, starting with a lush samba version of "The Look of Love" featuring saxophonist Dennis Wilson and a luminous reading of "Arthur's Theme" by backup Donna Taylor, who also shone on "I Say a Little Prayer."
On "Alfie," Bacharach proved a thin-voiced but charming interpreter of his own songs, but this segment ended up focusing more on his arranging, with the best moments the least adorned, as subtle syncopations and unobtrusive settings lent a pastel grace to the melodies.
Costello's renderings of old Bacharach material were generally respectful, though covering Jerry Butler's "Make It Easy on Yourself" seemed to make the singer uneasy on himself. Much better were the punchy "My Little Red Book," "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself." Costello, who recorded a version back in 1977, joked that "it's a great pleasure to play it for you with all the right chord changes," but he would have done better to ditch the overblown arrangement.
Thursday's concert was one of only five dates that Bacharach and Costello are doing to support their new project, and it ended with the song that brought them together in the first place, "God Give Me Strength" (written for the 1995 film Grace of My Heart). An elegant paean to the human spirit, it featured an unforgettable melody and Costello's most convincing delivery.