After my experience
of the Grace
Bumbry DVD in this series, I was
not sure what to expect. But Sylvia
McNair’s contribution is simply superb.
Whatever minor caveats one might have,
there is a security of interpretation
and a visceral love of the music she
sings that makes this disc irresistible.
Add to this the bonus of the Corigliano
cycle, written for McNair; a real work
The programming is
exemplary (the works appear exactly
as in my title to this review). The
emphasis, pre-Corigliano, is French
and Spanish, McNair clearly playing
to her strengths. In her first interview
sequence (they speckle the programme,
in between works), she talks of her
respect for and awareness of the importance
of the text. If this element is strong
throughout, it comes to a head in the
But to start at the
beginning, with Duparc’s Phidylé
(McNair: ‘I love it!’) has
the singer spinning her thread over
Vignoles’ softly pulsating chordal accompaniment.
Vignoles is in almost every way the
perfect accompanist, and he helps McNair
to capture the song’s near-ecstatic
The Fauré (in
C sharp minor - ‘a grrreat key’,
apparently) is notable not only for
McNair’s sensitive handling of line
but also for Vignoles’ care with counter-melodies.
But maybe it is the Messiaen that will
surprise. The harmonies are characteristically
‘slippy’, chords sliding to the next
sensually. This is a lovely song (very
approachable, if that worries you) and
McNair obviously loves this, too.
Punctuating the vocal
items is a brief Gymnopédie
that Vignoles despatches with great
sensitivity; McNair stands to the side
of the piano and gazes on.
As McNair puts it,
one advantage of the Vocalise is
that there are no words to forget. Ravel’s
example of this genre is, perhaps unsurprisingly,
sensual in a less developed - or perhaps
more refined - way than the Messiaen.
A rapid, quick-fire Debussy ‘Chevaux
de bois’ contains a marvellous sense
of mystery later on. McNair says she
wants to sing Mélisande; maybe
she has done since then? It would be
wonderful to hear. Vignoles, too, speaks
before this item, reflecting on the
differences between German Lied and
French Mélodies. His mode of
delivery is very English and very different
from McNair’s so they complement each
So to the first of
the two sets of songs. Falla’s popular
Spanish songs are magnificent. The singer
claims to love the language and the
pianist does a mean guitar-strumming
impression. McNair does the intensely
Spanish ornaments in the vocal line
especially well - try No. 4, ‘Jota’.
The strength of the McNair/Vignoles
partnership is that they can immerse
themselves in a lullaby (No. 5, ‘Nana’)
as easily as they can in the more extrovert
numbers (the final song, No. 7,’Polo’).
Finally, for the advertised
part of the programme, anyway, John
Corigliano’s Mr Tambourine Man.
McNair had been singing in Chicago in
Corigliano’s opera The ghosts of
Versailles. When asked who she would
like to write a cycle for her, her response
was immediate and this is the result.
Finished in February 2000 and premiered
in Carnegie Hall, this finds McNair
and Vignoles at their very best, don’t
let the fact that McNair uses the printed
music put you off. Following on from
the folk-like settings of Copland and
the songs of Leonard Bernstein, this
cycle is highly impressive.
piano introduction to the first song,
‘Prelude, Mr Tambourine Man’ is not
a million miles away from the Franco-Spanish
Impressionist feeling we have heard
Even more notable is
the way the concentration is screwed
up even higher from the performers.
It seems obvious that they want to do
the very best by this piece.
The second movement,
‘Clothes Line’, is sparse, along the
lines of Copland. The piano introduction
put me in mind of the slow movement
of Copland’s Duo for flute and piano.
This is very still music, very delicate
and spare. For ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,
the third song, the piano seems to reflect
the line, ‘How many roads must a man
walk down?’ in its trudging gait.
The final Postlude
carries straight on from the fifth song,
‘Chimes of Freedom’. The music gets
ever more spare, until McNair is left
to begin the Postlude on her own; and
beguilingly she does so, too. This is
the art of the simple to make the greatest
point, the greatest affect as well as
The encore is very
much an optional extra, as the Corigliano
demands prolonged contemplation long
after the music stops. However the Mozart,
the odd man out in the programme, too,
features superb melismatic passage-work
from McNair. It is not really thrilling
and there are some tuning problems that
indicate some fatigue. Finish with the
Corigliano, though, and you will not