Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
An die ferne Geliebte, op.98 [14:38]
Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Walzer-Gesänge nach Toskanischen Volksliedern
von Ferndinand Gregorovius, op.6 [13:03]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, op.22 [7:34]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Mélodies passagères, op.27 [8:29]
Hans EISLER (1898-1962)
Songs from the Hollywood Songbook [4:40]
Zwei Lieder nach Worten von Pascal [2:31]
Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Street Scene (“Lonely House”) [3:28]
Lady in the Dark (“My Ship”) [2:21]
Love Life (“Here I’ll Stay”) [3:08]
Thomas Michael Allen (tenor), Charles Spencer (piano)
rec. Vienna 24-29 June 2011
CAPRICCIO C5194 [78:46]
Strange how one’s perception of a recording can change as one listens – for better or worse. In this case it was emphatically the former. At the beginning of An die ferne Geliebte, Beethoven’s wonderful song-cycle, my immediate impression was of a rather colourless tenor sound. As the CD progressed, I came gradually to realise that Thomas Michael Allen is a singer of real stature. He is above all a superb stylist, as this very eclectic programme amply demonstrates.
Maybe he puts himself at a disadvantage by starting with the most ‘classical’ of the songs. I don’t dispute that it is the correct choice, for the whole disc has a natural time-line to it. However, he approaches the Beethoven with an emphasis on purity of line, which he achieves with admirable discipline. I was drawn in inexorably, and by the end won over completely by the restrained yet passionate reading. An die ferne Geliebte is such an extraordinary work, with – as in all mature Beethoven – one foot in the 18th century, one in the 19th; entirely individual, yet pointing the way for Schubert, Schumann and the other Romantic song composers.
Allen is also an exceptional linguist, and his effortlessly authentic German in the first track is followed by equally beautiful French for the Fauré and Barber songs that follow. Mandoline has an exquisitely judged rhythmic flow, while En Sourdine is a demonstration of the most perfect legato singing.
A word about his pianist, Charles Spencer; he is indeed a truly outstanding accompanist, and his playing is a major attraction on this recording. A pity, then, that the engineers haven’t got the balance – to my ears – quite right. Allen’s voice occupies the foreground, with the piano disappointingly far back. It’s not a big issue, though, and is far from spoiling this superb recital. In À Clymène, it is noticeable that Fauré’s tricky angular melodic shapes hold no untoward challenges for Allen, a fact which enables him to use daringly little vibrato at times, adding valuably to the range of vocal colours at his disposal.
The Zemlinsky songs were a real discovery for me; as one might expect, they have stylistic aspects in common with both Mahler and R. Strauss. They are, though, relatively early works, written in the composer’s late 20s, so that the melodies are straightforward, almost folk-like - the songs are short, and the harmonies not too ripely post-Wagnerian. The piano parts, though, are challengingly elaborate, and again wonderfully realised by Spencer.
Perhaps the most strikingly successful performances are saved for the Britten Michelangelo Sonnets. This is where it occurred to me that his nationality might be an advantage for Allen (he’s originally from Chicago), in that English tenors are always in danger of becoming self-conscious in this music. It is so obviously Brittenish, and the challenge can be not to sound like Peter Pears. Allen has no such hang-ups, and this music fits his voice like the proverbial glove. Vocally, he has a great deal in common with Pears, and has no doubt in his studies closely considered the great man’s interpretations – and why not?
Yet this is an artist with a strong personality of his own, and he brings all of that to bear on these Britten songs, moulding the lines in the most flexible way. Once again he uses that aural acuity to magical effect, for example in the breathtaking ending to Sonnet XXX. There is a quite exceptional technique behind this singing, allied to unerring musicianship.
The disc is completed and concluded with songs by three of Allen’s compatriots. Samuel Barber comes first, with a group of songs to French texts written when he was working in Europe, intending them for Bernac and Poulenc to perform.
He finishes with Eisler and Weill, both Brecht-collaborators, both Austrian-Jewish composers who sought fame, or at least recognition in the America of the 1930s and 1940s. Eisler was less successful than Weill, and ended up by being deported as a suspected Communist sympathiser. The songs here illustrate fascinatingly the stylistic dilemma he faced; the first two are to texts by Blaise Pascal, translated into English, their philosophising matched by music of austere atonality. The other two have taken on board some ‘Broadway’ elements – jazzy rhythms, catchier melodies – while retaining a certain harmonic complexity.
The Weill songs, on the other hand, have absorbed the popular styles much more fully and comfortably, and one can imagine what an impact they must have made on the young Leonard Bernstein, for example, as he prepared for his early stage-works, On the Town and Wonderful Town. I’ll confess that I didn’t find Allen quite so convincing in this repertoire; he is clearly quite at home with the music, but the timbre of the high tenor voice doesn’t seem to suit this music so well as does a high lightish baritone, such as William Sharp or Kurt Ollmann.
The issue is accompanied by excellent notes by David Christansen, in which he points out that there is a theme or thread running through the programme, quoting Allen’s own words, of “… things far away, and a sense of being out of place, especially in terms of composers setting texts in languages not their own …”. The texts are all provided, except for those by Bertolt Brecht for which permission to reproduce was, oddly, withheld. There are no translations, however, which is a pity; so I suggest a visit to www.recmusic.org, where you should be able to find what you need.
All in all, then a beautifully planned and executed CD by two outstanding musicians, each a master of his art.
Britten discography & review index:
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo