Nicholas Phan and Myra Huang: "Winter Words"
Songs by Britten. Texts and translations. Avie 2238
Over the past decade, the insightful, incisive light lyric tenor Nicholas Phan has forged a varied and admirable career, appearing onstage at Glimmerglass, NYCO, Seattle Opera and Los Angeles Opera and in diverse concert venues in North America and Europe.
In January 2009, Phan sang a memorable recital at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium with the outstanding Juilliard-trained Myra Huang at the keyboard. The Benjamin Britten songs on the program showed both artists' affinity for the lyric output the composer (an expert pianist) furnished for the idiosyncratic but ductile tenor of his life partner, Peter Pears.
Though the sound and the particular abilities of Pears are built into the structure of Britten's songs (melismatic passages, certain comfortable intervals), for me it's an active pleasure not to hear Pears singing them. Avie's CD — Phan's first solo recording, though he has recorded Pulcinella with Boulez and the CSO and several new American discs for Naxos — allows one to hear some of them done splendidly. It includes the major cycles Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (Op. 22, 1940) and the quirky, deeply moving Hardy-texted Winter Words (Op. 52, 1953). Phan's inflections display the same penetrating intelligence evident in his program note; he provides a clean line, with the tone alternately airy and firmly etched, as musical and verbal demands dictate. Huang is fully his equal, with quite magical treatment of the often fiercely challenging, if in places deceptively folkloric, accompaniments.
The Michelangelo cycle, containing the composer's first major songs intended for Pears, dates from the period when they as pacifists sought refuge in America. The texts commemorate, in a blend of passion and metaphysics, Michelangelo's only mildly requited intense feeling for his much younger beloved, Tommaso dei Cavalieri. The vocal line approximates bel canto demands (positively, unlike in Britten's Dream). In live performance the only singer I have heard equal Phan's mastery of the tricky and rewarding Winter Words is the Canadian Colin Balzer. A 1985 recording of both cycles by Anthony Rolfe Johnson with Graham Johnson (Hyperion A66209) approaches perfection. The tenors' timbres are quite different, with Rolfe Johnson perhaps more ethereal and soft-grained, Phan a bit more bright-edged. From habit, perhaps, I prefer Rolfe Johnson's treatment of sustained notes. But no one seeking a first-rate performance would be disappointed by either CD (or both).
The two cycles are offset by six folk-song settings. A particular highlight, with subtle, telling work from Phan and Huang both, is "The Last Rose of Summer," the haunting Thomas Moore song familiar from its use in Flotow's Martha but beautifully re-harmonized by Britten. The others, well worth hearing, are "The Ash Grove," "Come you not from Newcastle?" and the encore-ready "The Plough Boy." The program was recorded with exemplary clarity (in April 2009 and June 2010) but so closely as occasionally to accentuate a slightly stressed quality in Phan's instrument heard at full tilt; however, the tenor — ever a canny musician — deploys a wide and ever-changing dynamic palette.
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