Winter Words, Op.52
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op.22
Folksong Arrangements: The Ash Grove; The Last Rose of Summer; The Ploughboy; Come You Not from Newcastle?; Little Sir William; The Salley Gardens
Nicholas Phan (tenor) & Myra Huang (piano)
Recorded 13 April 2009 and 24 June 2010 at Bicoastal Music, Ossining, NY, USA
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: November 2011
CD No: AVIE RECORDS AV2238
Duration: 56 minutes
Peter Pears’s voice has been stilled since the early 1980s but I can still hear the distinctive sound of his voice in the music that Benjamin Britten wrote for him. The British singers who recorded this repertoire in the following generation – Robert Tear, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Philip Langridge – seemed to have (or perhaps adopted) a similar vocal quality and not to have completely avoided imitation of the ‘Pears sound’, with its nasal bleat, something resembling a whine on high notes, coupled to a precious style of delivering the text. Now that the umbilical cord has been broken – all three of the direct successors mentioned having passed on (and relatively young, too)– the torch falls to a new generation.
The Michelangelo Sonnets were the first written specifically by Britten for his partner and it is appropriate that the texts are addressed by the poet to a man to whom he was attracted, the Italian aristocrat Tomasso di Cavalieri. They mix emotional subjectivity with philosophical exploration of love. Britten chose a carefully balanced set of Sonnets, all but the last of them directed to Cavalieri. The inspiration for his settings is bel canto and Britten clothes himself convincingly in the Italian style, rather as Liszt does in his Petrarch Sonnets.
Britten and Pears may already have become lovers but the wedding bouquet of songs which Britten presented to the thirty-year-old tenor was in no way a soft gift, rather a case of tough love. No wonder the premiere was delayed for a year: Pears must have needed all that time and all his musicianship to conquer the cycle’s technical demands, which tests from the opening bars; launched by voice and piano in unison declamation ranging up to a number of top As, beautifully knitted to the following, rather hesitant approach to Cavalieri by a diminuendo held on the word “nostro”. Sonnet XXX, in which the poet sees himself as incomplete and dependent on Cavalieri for creative and spiritual fulfilment, demands the ability to encompass long sinuous legato phrases, their resolution constantly offering surprises in Britten’s inventive harmony. In Sonnet LV the poet plays a flirtatious role but the singer certainly cannot afford to take things easy, with the closing lines including a sudden octave leap to a high G.
The final setting (of seven), Sonnet XXIV, is a fitting climax to the cycle, with the piano emerging from the relatively subsidiary role of repeated figurations into the equality which it played in the opening song. Starting deep in the left-hand the melody climbs to the peak which the voice inhabits; the baton is passed back and forth until finally the two combine as the poet finds himself captivated by the power of love. Both artists have to convey the change of mood in the final lines as intensity turns to serene acceptance and Nicholas Phan and Myra Huang show an impressive understanding of this.
I was anticipating a complete breakaway from the Pears tradition but Phan can’t quite manage it. At the climax of Sonnet XXXI Phan decides on a nasal placement of the tone which seems adopted rather than part of his own vocal character. There are a number of other cases where one suspects the influence of Pears, either conscious or unintentional. The stringent tests that Britten set for his new musical partner are not hidden. There are one or two moments of uncertain intonation and when pressure is put on the voice a slight beat appears. Phan’s breath control, however, allows of little criticism and the two fast songs are negotiated with admirable clarity of enunciation.
In the USA Phan has been presented by the invaluable Marilyn Horne Foundation and is clearly embarking on a promising career. He writes in the programme note of his first encounter with Britten’s song-writing and how his audience at a provincial recital were hearing Winter Words for the first time received them, an experience which led him to an obsessive interest in the Hardy cycle.
Phan and Huang capture the sunny Italianate exuberance of the Michelangelo Sonnets. Thomas Hardy’s poetry in Winter Words, by contrast, evokes a grey world but one in which the weak light forces the poet to home in on detail: the colour and habit of trees, the behaviour of birds, the sound of a creaking table – all make an impression on the senses. Above all, the observer in ‘Midnight on the Great Western’ notices an accumulation of visual detail which leads him to increasingly macabre musings about the boy and the background to his journey. Britten’s setting of this is masterly. He establishes the scene by conjuring up in the accompaniment the scream of the whistle, the locomotive’s shuddering into life and the chugging motion of the train. In the voice part the melismas on the words “the journeying boy” twice settle on a harmonic centre but the third time they spin off into worryingly root-less territory as the poet hints at something otherworldly about him. Phan conveys this progression, avoiding the temptation towards hysteria.
He has clearly gone to the heart of this heterogeneous cycle since that first seminal encounter. He recognises when to be extrovert, as in the cacophony of noise in ‘Proud Songsters’, yet he projects just the right degree of intimacy in ‘The Little Old Table’ and the reference to children in ‘At Day-close in November’. Parallels with Winterreise come to mind: ghostly figures in ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’ and ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’, the steady tramp of the introduction to ‘Before Life and After’ and the singer’s high entry, reminiscent of Schubert’s ‘Gute Nacht’, the piano’s imitation of the creaking table which echoes the whirring of the weather-vane in the ‘Die Wetterfahne’. Huang makes much of her more prominent role in creating this soundworld. Both artists reflect the more nuanced style of Britten’s wholly authentic contribution to English Song. If Phan does slip into Pears mode again in ‘Before Life and After’, that song fitted Pears’s voice as much as any other in Britten’s oeuvre, with so much of the melodic writing sitting in the most characteristic area of the singer’s voice.
Phan uses much less voice in the Folksong Arrangements. He produces some of the most beautiful tone in his soft singing that I have heard from a young lyric tenor for a long time and no hint of his predecessor is to be heard. With Huang not overloading the accompaniments they offer a good antidote to the over-heating of one cycle and the gravity of the other. Their Last Rose of Summer is enriched by a well-supported mezza voce in Phan’s added cadenzas and a commanding diminuendo at the point in the third verse when the swelling accompaniment threatens to overtake the melody. Not everything is lightweight, however: The Salley Gardens does not lack for intensity
The recording edgily foregrounds the singer in an inappropriately spacious acoustic, and under fifty-six minutes is rather short measure and the singing is not without blemishes but there is no doubt about the commitment of the artist or the spontaneity of the performances.