In ‘At day-close in November’, the opening song of Winter Words,
the wan atmosphere created by Myra Huang at the piano is complemented by the restlessness Nicholas Phan conveys vocally, but Britten marks the opening ‘Quick and impetuous’ and I don’t think there’s enough fire to catch that. I compared the 2010 recording by another young tenor, Robin Tritschler with a very experienced pianist, Malcolm Martineau (ONYX 4071). They convey more urgency, set up by a more commanding piano introduction and, by contrast, Tritschler finds more despair in the soft close; but generally Phan’s articulation is firmer, there’s more immediacy in his account and a sense of more involvement with the text, characteristics found throughout this performance. In ‘Midnight on the Great Western’ the melisma as the voice’s ‘journeying’ mimics the already piano presented picture of the train’s motion comes across very clearly from Phan and Huang. Martineau gives the train a heavier presence but Phan/Huang find more momentum in the journey and Phan is more expressive in musing on the boy’s situation.
In ‘Wagtail and Baby’ Huang’s carefree accompaniment allows free rein to Phan’s vocal narrative. Again Phan is fully engaged with the text and delivers it in an attractive, smiling fashion. Their tempo is closer to Britten’s ‘Gently moving’ marking than Martineau and Tritschler’s more animated, virtuoso display and this allows Huang to bring more poise to the piano postlude. ‘The little old table’ when it creaks brings to mind the girl who gave it but the vocal and instrumental creaks are, like Britten wants them, ‘quick and light’. Phan and Huang are content in their distance from a relationship, however unfulfilled. There’s acceptance in the recollection whereas the faster Tritschler and Martineau, perhaps closer to Britten’s intention, bring the nervous tension of a somewhat furtive recall. ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’, a kind of spiritual ghost story, benefits from matter-of-fact delivery: it’s marked ‘Simply’ and you immediately note the intimacy of the opening two lines sung unaccompanied. The vocal highlights are the poise of the Purcell style melismata on the hope for heaven of ‘seraphim’ and the triumphant affirmation of ‘ancient’. Phan finds a lovely flow for the former and a fitting element of ecstasy in the latter, in both of which he’s more telling than Tritschler who is however generally intently lyrical. The piano enjoys a more wryly comic role in mimicking the peremptory manner of the vicar and the bustling quavers of a hasty burial. Huang brings out the comedy more, though Martineau more closely observes Britten’s marking of ‘heavily’ at the vicar’s statements. ‘Proud Songsters’ is a spectacular invasion of young birds, brightly displayed by Phan, with a more vivid realization of Britten’s ‘Impetuous’ marking than Tritschler, though Martineau shows more dazzle on the piano here than Huang. ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’ is more quizzical but about the capability of an unexpected incident opening up, however briefly, a new perspective. Britten marks it ‘Lightly and like an improvisation’. Huang begins and continues carefree but the slower Martineau, overall timing 3:09 against 2:53, gets across more graphically both the uncertainty and spontaneity of the situation. Phan, animated at the climax, elsewhere scrupulously observes Britten’s subtle conveying of the human cares that are briefly thrust aside but the slower tempo gives Tritschler a little more breadth for reflection. ‘Before Life and After’, with beatific piano right hand and dull, earthy left hand from Huang, finds Phan ardently and expressively seeking happiness in terms of the absence of consciousness and ills of life the song lists. Tritschler and Martineau provide a more serene lyricism at the outset and you appreciate the subtly darker shading as the song develops, but Phan and Huang’s slightly steadier interpretation of Britten’s ‘Quietly moving’ (timing at 3:12 against 3:00) results in more weight given to the text and more marked shaping of phrases. Phan also brings more of a sense of anguished protest to the climax.
The Seven sonnets of Michelangelo
is a formidable cycle, requiring a wide range of ability. The first sonnet (tr. 12) opens very rhetorically yet there's the contrast of sweetness at 'Cosi, signor mie car', 'So, my dear lord' (0:45) to which Phan brings a telling smoothness before a well measured closing climax and from Huang a fine precipitato
piano finish. I compared the 2010 recording by Allan Clayton and Malcolm Martineau (ONYX 4079). They are slightly faster, making the piano bolder and voice more heroic, but Clayton's contrast is less smooth than Phan's. In the second sonnet it's Phan and Huang who are faster and they more successfully convey urgency and a unifying force to this study of distraction. In the third sonnet, however (tr. 14), the most hauntingly lyrical in the cycle, Clayton finds a more meltingly hushed, intimate manner in the opening and more poised shading of 'pondo', 'burden', where a crescendo
is marked to be capped by a sudden pianissimo.
Phan at 0:44 isn't quite as magical here though his top B at the climax, 'ciel', 'heavens' (3:04) is more striking. Clayton, however, is more poised in the closing 'sole', 'sun'. Clayton/Martineau are more successful in revealing Sonnet 4 (tr. 15) as a fractious courtship. It’s dominated by the piano’s insistently recurring motif yet Huang doesn’t press onward like Martineau. Clayton is more frantic at the climax’s ‘Rompasi il mur’, ‘Break down the wall’ when Phan (0:37) is just raucous. Clayton also finds more calm in the quieter passages. In Sonnet 5 it’s the piano’s turbulent running quavers in the left and jarring displacement of rhythm in the right hand that dominate and Martineau makes this restlessly volatile which I find more dramatically effective than Huang’s playfulness. The song is serenade like but with the tumultuous backcloth is given a haunted quality by Clayton where Phan prefers earnestness. Sonnet 6 is a tour-de-force of energy for both voice and piano. Phan conveys a relish in this more than Clayton but Huang’s accompaniment doesn’t have quite the crispness of Martineau’s. Sonnet 7 is the grandest with exhortatory solo passages for both piano and voice. Huang has a formal solemnity without quite the sense of import which Martineau provides. Phan is compelling in the bel canto
displays but Clayton’s phrasing is more spacious. Both make a tellingly soft contrast at ‘cose si rare’, ‘things so rare’ (2:20) but Clayton reveals Britten’s dynamic range more fully, partly because he’s less closely recorded.
In contrast Phan and Huang also offer six folksong arrangements providing some relief yet also a good demonstration of artistry. Come you not from Newcastle?
has an easy swing. Little Sir William
is ironically bright and playful. The Salley Gardens
is given just that drag in the phrasing that highlights the emotion. The Ash Grove
begins innocently and ends calm: in between anguish is conveyed by fuller voice and growingly dissonant piano. The Last Rose of Summer
has telling dramatic placing and poignancy. The Ploughboy
, marked ‘Quick and gay’, is certainly that. These are enjoyable performances, freshly sung and played as is the repertoire throughout this CD but the strongest impression is made by Winter Words