November 14, 2012
On his second solo album for British label Avie, Still Falls the Rain, American tenor Nicholas Phan again turns to the music of Benjamin Britten. Having already recorded Winter Words, the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, and several of Britten’s most popular folksong arrangements, he brings us more music that Britten composed for the unforgettably haunting voice of his life partner, tenor Peter Pears.
As the album’s centerpieces, Phan chooses Canticles III and V of Britten’s five Canticles. Canticle III: Still falls the Rain is a setting of poetry by Edith Sitwell for tenor, horn, and piano (originally written for Pears, horn virtuoso Dennis Brain, and himself) that Britten intended as a memorial for his accompanist and friend, Noel Mewton-Wood. For the 1956 Aldeburgh Festival, which was co-founded by Britten and Pears, Britten expanded Canticle III into a longer work that gave Sitwell the opportunity to recite some of her poetry. Titled The Heart of the Matter, it is here performed in the truncated version that Pears prepared for the 1983 celebration of Britten’s music held at Wigmore Hall. We’ve included its short prologue, “Where are the seeds of the Universal Fire,” to give you a sense of the flavor of the work, as well as Phan’s approach. (The 1956 Aldeburgh performance of Canticle III with Pears, Brain, and Britten has been issued by BBC Music.)
Surrounding Sitwell’s multiple references to Christ in Still falls the Rain with three additional vocal sections and readings that delve further into the suffering of Christ may please the devout, but it does not make for a rosy 25 minutes of listening pleasure. Perhaps this is why it took 27 years for The Heart of the Matter to receive a second performance. Phan, pianist Myra Huang, horn player Jennifer Montone, and narrator Alan Cumming give it their all, but the combination of poetry that is hardly an easy read with the musical equivalent of a crown of thorns creates a distance that some listeners, myself included, will find near impenetrable. Label me heathen or philistine if you will, but there you have it.
Canticle V: The Death of Narcissus, written in Britten’s final years of declining health, sets far more accessible poetry by T.S. Eliot. The music is gorgeous, and the recording quite successful in surrounding Phan and harpist Sivan Magen with a captivating sense of space. Phan may not possess the sweetness and innocence that make Ian Bostridge’s performance more moving and sympathetic, nor is he helped by the hard edge that the microphone brings to his voice, but the performance has much to recommend it.
Injecting more humor and color into his performance of Pears' revised version of Britten's final song cycle, A Birthday Hansel, a setting for tenor and harp of seven poems by Robert Burns that Britten composed in celebration of the Queen Mother’s 75th birthday, would have been welcome, but Phan does quite well playing it straight, as it were. In the Eight folk song arrangements with harp, he and Magen know when to emphasize the cold dankness of the English landscape that Britten captures in his arrangements, and when to soften. “Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn,” for example, is simply lovely.