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Nicholas Phan: “A Painted Tale”

spacer With A. M. Morgan, viola da gamba, Leopold, lute. Texts. Avie AV 2325

Recordings Phan Painted Tale Cover 615

A Painted Tale, the third solo album from American tenor Nicholas Phan, weaves together songs by several sixteenth– and seventeenth-century English composers into a narrative of love desired, gained and lost. The album tells the story in what Phan himself describes as a “pastiche” song cycle, modeled after the great Romantic song cycles of the nineteenth century, but which Phan communicates with the immediacy of a contemporary singer-songwriter. The intimate texture of the album, created by Michael Leopold on lute and Ann Marie Morgan on viola da gamba,adds to this effect and makes the journey of the album seem like both the retelling of a legend and a first confession.

The album’s first track, “A Painted Tale” by Thomas Morley (1557/8–1602), is an invitation into the story, with Phan assuming the roles of singing bard and protagonist. The tale itself begins with a song of unrequited love, “O solitude, my sweetest choice,” by Henry Purcell (1659–95), which Phan infuses with erotic melancholy. The John Blow (1649–1708) songs that follow, “Fairest work of happy nature” and “The Self Banished,” are playful even as they express yearning and jealousy, giving Phan, Leopold and Morgan the opportunity to experiment with colors and dynamic shading. 

The eroticism of waiting and jealousy heats up in “Fire, fire” by Nicholas Lanier (1588–1666). Phan injects a lifetime of jealousy into each consonant and sings Lanier’s setting of Thomas Campion’s poem with an unrestrained erotic urgency. This cools into Blow’s seductive “O turn not those fine eyes away,” which hypnotizes and seduces with a spinning dance rhythm. 

Purcell’s “Sweeter than roses” and “She loves and she confesses too,” provide the turning point in the tale. Phan becomes the triumphant lover and his voice, calm and contemplative in the first line of “Sweeter than roses,” turns heroic and muscular, especially in the songs’ melismatic passages. 

The descending ground bass in Lanier’s “No more shall meads” foreshadows an exile from paradise even as Phan, Leopold and Morgan create a semblance of peace. The fiery fioratura and triumphant melismas return in Blow’s “Of all the torments” and the façade of joy crumbles. The protagonist retreats into himself in Purcell’s quietly dramatic, “Not all my torments.” It is a short but powerful song with each of the poem’s four lines set as a different emotional beat that Phan performs with an actor’s sense of poetry and declamation. 

Two songs composed by John Dowland (1563–1626) are the highlights of the last third of the album. In the sepulchral “In darkness let me dwell,” Phan covers his youthful, bright voice with shades of grey, while “Come, heavy Sleep” is memorable for the way Phan clings to consonants and vibrates every vowel with intention. 

The story ends with Purcell’s familiar “Evening Hymn.” Phan sings the song as a hymn of liberation not from life, as the song would suggest, but from the pain of love. We are left with the feeling that the protagonist did not die from his suffering but has learned something from it and moved on — a thoroughly twenty-first-century conclusion. spacer


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