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A Musical Zoo
Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
rec. 29 June-1 July 2020, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK
Texts & translations included
CHANDOS CHAN20184 [75:13]

I’ve heard Ashley Riches on several occasions, both live and on disc, and invariably I’ve been impressed. This, I think, may be his first solo recital disc and he’s devised a varied and enjoyable programme around the theme of the animal kingdom. Composers from several nations and song traditions are represented here and there’s a welcome blend of the serious and the not-so-serious. One slight personal disappointment, in view of the cover illustration, is that Riches has not selected The Hippopotamus Song by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann or, indeed, one of their other animal songs. No matter; this is a well-planned programme. Since Ashley Riches has grouped the running order according to composer nationality it seems sensible to follow a similar path in this review.

We begin, then, in Germany and with one of the most famous of all animal songs, Die Forelle. Riches spins a winning narrative without ever compromising the quality of his singing for story-telling effect. I appreciated both the tonal clarity and also the excellent diction; both of these are to be hallmarks of the entire recital. Schumann’s Die Löwenbraut is a setting of a somewhat fanciful but ultimately tragic tale. Riches sings it imaginatively and his full, generous tone is just right for the music. In Wolf’s Der Rattenfänger the performance gains terrific impetus through the dynamic, driving pianism of Joseph Middleton; his playing is an admirable foil to Ashley Riches’ excellent articulation. Middleton is to the fore again at the start of Strauss’s Die Drossel; in the introduction he depicts birdsong superbly

At the start of the French group, Fauré’s youthful Le Papillon et la fleur is a delight; Riches and Middleton ensure that the music sounds light and airborne, as it should. Ravel’s Histoires naturelles are well done. In ‘Le Paon’ the performers convey the frustrated hauteur of the regal bird. Middleton’s marvellously light, dexterous playing is a splendid foil for Riches’ fine delivery of ‘Le Grillon’. For me, the highlight is ‘Le Martin-pêcheur’ in which both singer and pianist evoke a wonderfully tense ambience to convey the thrilled anxiety of an angler who dare not move for fear of disturbing the Kingfisher that has alighted on his rod. I really enjoyed this account of Ravel’s set of songs.

To Russia for short songs by Mussorgsky and Shostakovich. The humour of the former’s Song of the Flea is strongly characterised. Shostakovich’s Once there lived a cockroach is a strange song, setting lines from Dostoyevsky’s The Devils. Riches projects the music vividly.

We’re on more familiar ground with the English songs. In Herbert Howells’ King David Ashley Riches has chosen one of the greatest examples of the genre. I don’t think Riches quite matches the subtlety and smooth legato of Roderick Williams in a memorable recording which I reviewed last year. That said, the two voices are very different and Riches’ performance brings its own rewards, not least through the excellence of the line he spins. He conveys the melancholy of the song very well.

Crossing the Atlantic, Samuel Barber’s ‘The Monk and His Cat’ receives a performance in which both performers do full justice to the whimsy of this attractive song. Vernon Duke’s settings of twenty little verses by Ogden Nash constitute an enjoyable entertainment. The songs are very short – all of them play for less than a minute – but Duke seems in his varied music to capture the essence of Nash’s pithy little sallies. I especially like the genial, relaxed ‘Our Dog’ while ‘The Calf’ is deceptive in suggesting “animal rights” sympathies – but turns out to be nothing of the kind; the poet has more ignoble ideas in mind! These songs are, in essence, musical postage stamps but they make for an entertaining package, especially when performed with the wit and sense of fun that’s in evidence here. Incidentally, Ashley Riches adopts a mild American drawl to sing the songs. He judges the effect nicely, not overdoing the accent.

The programme ends with a song that might be said to straddle the Atlantic in the sense that it’s the work of a British composer who was, at the time, resident in the USA. The Crocodile is one of the many traditional British folk- and traditional songs that Benjamin Britten arranged. He made this particular arrangement for Peter Pears in 1941, not long before the two of them returned home from their lengthy sojourn in the US. It appears, though, that the arrangement wasn’t published until 2000. The song tells a very tall tale indeed and it’s performed with great relish by Riches and Middleton as they romp through the several key changes in the arrangement. It’s a fun piece and it’s a splendid choice with which to end this recital.

I enjoyed this recital disc enormously. Ashley Riches’ singing and Joseph Middleton’s playing are superb throughout and their programme has been discerningly constructed. The whole enterprise has been expertly recorded by Jonathan Cooper. The comprehensive documentation includes not only the texts and, where appropriate, English translations, but also very useful notes by Mervyn Cooke and a nice little essay by Ashley Riches.

I’ve credited the artists, the producer/engineer and the author of the notes. I mustn’t forget, though, to mention the lady who is, I suspect, the inspiration for the show. The booklet contains a photograph of Ashley Riches and one of Joseph Middleton, as you’d expect. However, it is graced by no less than four pictures of Leonora Rubenstein. Who is she, I hear you ask? Why, she’s Ashley Riches’ cat and she’s a most attractive and appealing feline – a British Blue-tipped, I suspect. To judge from the singer’s booklet essay, she rules the roost chez Riches, so it’s no surprise that she features so prominently in association with this thoroughly entertaining disc.

John Quinn

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Die Forelle, D550 (1817 rev 1820)
Franz Schubert Die Vögel, D691 (1820)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) Die Löwenbraut, Op 31, No 1 (1840)
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) Der Rattenfänger (1888)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) An die Nachtigall, Op 46, No 4 (1877)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Die Drossel, WoO 34, TrV 49 (1977)
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) Le Papillon et la fleur, Op 1 No 1 (1861)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Histoires naturelles (1906)
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) Mephistopheles’s Song of the Flea in Auerbach’s Tavern (1879)
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) Once there lived a cockroach, Op 146, No 2 (1974)
John Ireland (1879-1962) The Three Ravens (1920)
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) King David (1919)
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) The Monk and His Cat, Op 29, No 8, from Hermit Songs (1952-53)
Vernon Duke (1903-1969) Ogden Nash’s Musical Zoo (1947)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) The Crocodile (1941)

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