A painted tale

Nicholas Phan tenor, Michael Leopold lute, Ann Marie Morgan viola da gamba
69:39
Avie Records AV 2325
Music by Blow, Dowland, Alfonso Ferrabosco, Lanier & Henry Purcell

The young American tenor Nicholas Phan has rightly attracted praise for his performances of Britten, with whose music he identifies. It is very noticeable that he has welcomed on board many elements of Pears’ style, notably the latter’s use (particularly in his later years) of acciaccatura – launching up to a higher note from the lower one, like a mini trampoline in front of a vaulting horse. This is a technique which most singers approaching Early Music rejected outright way back in the 1980s, mercifully. This might serve Britten well, and one could even describe it as ‘authentic’, since it is based upon a reliable source or two (Pears, and later Robert Tear – likewise no stranger to the trampoline), but when performing music of the 17th century, we have definitely moved on nowadays. This is a great shame – Phan is clearly a singer to watch, but not in this repertoire, sadly. Inspired by Pears’ love of English lute song, as performed with Julian Bream, Phan tackles many of ‘the usual suspects’, arranging them into a faux-cycle to create a narrative of love and rejection inviting comparison with ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’ (he suggests), which is as good a way to present a programme as anything, but his style of singing scuppers enjoyment. Unfortunately, Phan has failed to learn from Pears’ subtle ‘less is more’ adjustment of his unique voice to form a close balance with the lute, and some tender songs here seem over-projected, Britten-esque style, as if he is imagining he is on the beach at Aldeburgh, with a gale blowing behind. Some songs (such as Purcell’s ‘Evening Hymn’) with its long phrases feature some very dubious choices of where to take breaths – indeed, in that song, he appears so out of breath at the end of the final Hallelujah, he almost beats the lute and viol to arrival at the last note! Sometimes he will remember he should be emphasising words, in best Bostridge fashion, so the occasional one is promoted over its companions, but not always the best one in the sentence ‘And he whose words his passions Rr-right can tell’, with the ‘R’ on ‘right’ rolled like a sudden drum roll, making that one (not particularly important) word made to protrude from the phrase like a sore thumb. He does something similar in Purcell’s ‘O Solitude’, at ‘when their Harr-rd, their hard fate’, a phrase that he feels needs to stand out, for some reason, so although he precedes it with softer, gentle singing, he then belts that particular phrase, forte, like Grimes railing against Fate.

Throughout the disc he cannot seem to reconcile both ideas – emphatic and gentler singing. Like Bob Tear of blessed memory, Phan also strains and projects higher phrases by the trusty expedient of singing louder as the music ranges higher – often with a similarly slightly strangled tone! Purcell’s ‘Sweeter than roses’ taxes him, and his breathing to breaking point. Call me old-fashioned, but if you can’t sing the whole of Purcell’s phrase setting the word ‘victorious’ in one breath, you really should be re-thinking how to perform these songs. Then, at other times, he contradicts my moans by turning in a near perfect performance of, for example, Dowland’s ‘My thoughts are winged with hopes’. I said ‘near – he still belts the highest phrases! But Blow’s ‘Of all the torments’ is all over the place – he seems to think he is Loge in Rheingold. The editions he is using have some oddities, unfortunately. In ‘O Solitude’ the word is ‘Apollo’s lore’, for example, not Apollo’s love. Likewise, Dowland wrote ‘Better a thousand times to die, than for to live thus…, not ‘then for to live’, which makes no sense. I don’t enjoy writing so many negative remarks about such a promising young singer who is clearly trying so hard to create something really beautiful and special, but he really needs to acquire some Early Music Technique like the rest of us had to – you really can’t just ‘wing it’ in everything from Monteverdi to Wagner today, like Bob Tear got away with, no matter how suitable your voice may be for other material. I hope he re-thinks how to approach this earlier repertoire, and seeks proper advice, because I want to hear him do better.

David Hill

Since we only received a preview copy of the disc, David felt unable to comment on the booklet note or the packaging.