Lyric tenor Nicholas Phan is no stranger to Atlanta. He has visited several times to sing leading roles in Atlanta Opera productions of “Carmina Burana,” “La Cenerentola” and ”Don Giovanni,” as well as concerts with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park.
A passionate devotee of art song and founder of the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, Phan returned to Atlanta on November 9 with his pianist Myra Huang to perform a concentrated recital of Schubert and Britten at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall.
Phan and Huang have embarked on a multi-year project to explore and record the songs that Benjamin Britten (1913-76) composed for his lifelong partner, tenor Peter Pears. Already Phan has released two full-length recordings dedicated to Britten, Still Fall the Rain and Winter Words on the AVIE label.
The entire second half of the program at Spivey Hall highlighted the mid-century setting of Thomas Hardy’s challenging poetry “Winter Words Op. 52,” as well as some choice folk songs that Britten arranged throughout his lifetime, including the gruesome tale “Little Sir William” and a stunning version of “The Last Rose of Summer.”
Britten’s output for the tenor voice is significant. While his choice of song texts is universal — Pushkin, Rimbaud, and Michelangelo — Britten’s musical language stretches the listener. Amidst the structural clarity of his songs and use of familiar devices such as ostinato figures and sequences, there is a remarkable use of dissonance and independence of the vocal line and piano accompaniment. These songs seemed all the more shocking to the ear after the first half of the recital, which was wholly comprised of a selection of Schubert’s early 19th century masterpieces.
Phan interpreted the sometimes ambiguous melodies of Britten with a voice that is luxurious and achingly beautiful. The fifth song in Winter Words, titled “The Choirmaster’s Burial,” is the centerpiece of the palindrome-like cycle. It’s the story of a choirmaster who asks that a specific hymn be played at his burial, but he is callously denied that request at his funeral by a time-conscious vicar. As Huang’s music proceeded from simple chords to arpeggios and finally incorporates the hymn tune “Mount Ephraim,” Phan elegantly spun out a quasi-recitative vocal line and choice melismas with crystal-clear diction.
Phan justified his recital programming citing likenesses between Schubert and Britten, chiefly mastery in setting their respective native languages and the considerable voice that both composers assigned to the piano within their songs.
The first half of the program opened with Schubert songs about spring — “Frühlingsglaube,” “Im Frühling” and “Der Musensohn” — and the rarely heard and episodic song, “Viola.” This song, which was first published two years after Schubert’s death, consists of no less than 19 verses as Schubert and his poet-muse Franz Adolf Friedrich von Schober conveyed an elaborate metaphor paralleling a violet which blooms prematurely with a bride who has been jilted at the altar.
Phan is a compelling raconteur, completely invested in the telling. His voice is a kaleidoscope of sound, ranging from a riveting forte to voce finta. Schubert’s piano accompaniment in “Viola” is nothing short of virtuosic and Huang was equally responsible for the ultimate effect. The scena ended ever so quietly, so much so that the Spivey Hall audience did not want to spoil the moment by applauding.
Phan and Huang offered two absolute gems during the recital — Schubert’s “Ganymed,” sung seamlessly — and the timeless folk song “Greensleeves.” The latter was an encore and punctuated the evening with simplicity and elegance.