Nicholas Phan: "Still Falls the Rain"
Song cycles and folk-song arrangements by Benjamin Britten. With Huang, piano; Montone, horn; Magen, harp; Cumming, narrator. Texts and notes. Avie AV 2258
Benjamin Britten shelved his song cycle The Heart of the Matter after just one performance in 1956, but since his death there have been several attempts to redeem the curious hybrid. Peter Pears crafted a twenty-minute abridgment, which had its first performance in 1983 and has been recorded occasionally in recent years, notably by Philip Langridge and now by American tenor Nicholas Phan, in a successor to his first Britten disc, Winter Words (AV 2238).
The cycle incorporates a song Britten had already composed on Edith Sitwell's wartime poem "Still Falls the Rain: The Raids 1940. Night and Dawn," written in the aftermath of the London Blitz. To honor the poet in a full-length concert, he drew on several of her other works to supplement "Rain" with additional songs or fragments of recitative, including a prologue and epilogue, all interspersed with verse to be recited by Sitwell herself.
The alternating songs and readings do not do much for each other; the lack of coherence is underlined on this recording by the strong Scottish accent of the reader, actor Alan Cumming. The recited passages lack the specificity and clarity of "Still Falls the Rain," while the new musical material finds Britten uncharacteristically reticent, playing second fiddle to Sitwell's elaborate mixed metaphors. The recurring horn fanfares, an attempt to provide some musical continuity, strike a surprisingly jubilant note for these poems drenched in grief and yearning.
It falls to the singer to provide dramatic focus and intensity. In the other complete recording still in print (Naxos 8.557202), Langridge has strong presence, fortified by a range of expressive effects. In comparison, this new version finds Phan perhaps too formal and precise in diction — keeping the emotional responses at some distance. Yet he excels at many details, and you have to admire his pluck in the prolonged opening crescendo (in the line "Where are the seeds of the Universal Fire..."), even if a forte wobble underscores his fragility.
Another argument against The Heart of the Matter is that Britten had devised a different setting for his "Still Falls the Rain," in a collection of five heterogeneous songs he called Canticles ("Rain" being Canticle III). Phan on this disc also performs Canticle V, "The Death of Saint Narcissus," a setting of T. S. Eliot's hymn to martyrdom and eroticism that the poet withdrew from publication. Earlier recordings of the song by Pears, Langridge and Ian Bostridge have greater dramatic scope, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson's is a triumph of vocal refinement; still, Phan makes points of his own, contrasting darkened timbre with an almost dulcet choirboy style that infuses even the sensuous androgynous hints with innocence.
Numerous folk songs on the disc find the singer rising to a variety of challenges. In A Birthday Hansel,Phan's smooth treatment of elaborate passages in "My Early Walk" complements his trumpeting of a sturdier tone in the preceding "Birthday Song." He excels particularly in the arrangements with harp accompaniment (dynamically performed by Sivan Magen) — perhaps nowhere with such haunting beauty as in the curvaceous lines of the Gaelic "Bugeilio'r Gwenith Gwyn."
DAVID J. BAKER
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