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Illuminations Gabriel FAURÉ (1845 – 1924)
La Bonne Chanson [22:17] Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
Ariettes oubliées [16:25] Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 – 1976) Les Illuminations [23:18]
Nicholas Phan (tenor)
Myra Huang (piano)
rec. 2017, Skywalker Studio, Marin County, & Drew University Concert Hall, Madison, USA
Sung texts with English translations enclosed AVIE AV2382 [62:56]
American tenor Nicholas Phan has attracted much attention the last few years, as recitalist as well as operatic singer in lyrical roles like Nemorino and Tamino. He has also recorded extensively and this is his fifth solo album. For the previous one, Gods & Monsters, he was Grammy-nominated and naturally I was curious to hear him. He has already issued two Britten albums and was titled “a major new Britten interpreter” by the New York Times. Thus it was a brilliant idea to pair Britten’s youthful French cycle Les Illuminations with two of the great French song composers. As a programme this is certainly an illuminating combination and should be a tempting proposition even for those well-stocked with recordings of the individual cycles. It is a further asset to have Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson performed in the version for voice and piano quintet. The only previous recording I could find in my admittedly not very exhaustive collection was a DG disc with Anne Sofie von Otter.
The cycle was composed in 1892 and 1893 for the soprano Emma Bardac, who also is the dedicatee. Fauré was in love with her, which also Claude Debussy was, and after her divorce from her husband in 1905 it was Debussy who got the best of it and they married in 1908. La Bonne Chanson was premiered privately in April 1894 and publicly a year later. It was not well received and Camille Saint-Saëns said that Fauré had gone mad. And it is true that Fauré had developed harmonically in late-romantic direction from his early, more melodious songs, and Saint-Saëns was rather conservative. On the other hand Marcel Proust, who was present at the first performance, adored it. The quintet version was premiered in London in April 1898. I must admit that there is a special aura around the songs through the beautiful string writing, and the Telegraph Quartet play excellently. As for the singing Nicholas Phan is very responsive to Verlaine’s poems, he phrases conscientiously and musically and employs a wide pallet of vocal colours. His tone is beautiful and his half-voice delicious. On the debit side must be noted that he under pressure too often adopts a wobble. Not of the worst kind I hasten to add, but he has to be observant for the future. He is still a young singer.
Fauré’s rival Debussy also set Verlaine and Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten songs) belong to the composer’s relatively early works. They were written 1885 – 1887, most of them during his time in Rome where he stayed at the Villa Medici after he had won the Prix de Rome. These subtle songs were dedicated to soprano Mary Garden, who fifteen years later was the first Mélisande in Debussy’s only opera. Although written with a female voice in mind the songs suit Nicholas Phan to perfection. His light touch and subtle phrasing is greatly satisfying. Those who want to sample should lend an ear to Chevaux de bois (tr. 13) or Green (tr. 14). This is Debussy singing of the highest order.
Britten may seem like an odd bird in the company of his French colleagues from earlier generations, but his choice of poetry fits perfectly here. Rimbaud, who wrote all his poetry before the age of 21 (Les Illuminations was his last work), belonged like his slightly older colleague Verlaine to the Symbolist movement, and the two friends had a stormy relation during a couple of years. Britten was probably introduced to the poems by his friend W. H. Auden in the late 1930s and completed much of the music during his stay in the United States when he started his life-long relationship with tenor Peter Pears. But the work was conceived for soprano and string orchestra and the dedicatee was Sophie Wyss, who also premiered it in 1940 with Boyd Neel conducting. However some individual movements were also dedicated to other persons – Being Beauteous to Pears, who also sang the cycle often and recorded it with the composer conducting in the 1960s. Much earlier he recorded it with Eugene Goosens. The catalogues literally spill over with recordings of Les Illuminations and everyone can probably find a version with her/his favourite singer. My favourite since many years is a Caprice recording with Swedish soprano Margareta Hallin but it doesn’t seem to be available at the moment. Nicholas Phan stands up well against his competitors. His delicate soft nuances are often enticing and his expressive handling of the texts utterly expressive. The playing of The Knights is excellent.
The present coupling is probably unique, Phan’s regular accompanist Myra Huang has the full measure of the two cycles where she takes part and the recording is, as always with Avie, first class. Apart from my initial misgivings concerning Nicholas Phan’s slight wobble, I have nothing but praise for this disc, but prospective buyers allergic to vibrato should sample before buying.