A Painted Tale
The year has barely begun and already here’s a disc to remember come all those end-of-year round-ups. Young American tenor Nicholas Phan isn’t exactly a newcomer – this is his third solo album, and both ‘Winter Words’ (4/12) and ‘Still Falls the Rain’ (12/12) made the New York Times’ ‘best of’ list – but, with a performing career based largely in North America and mainland Europe, rumours have yet to turn into an established reputation in the UK. Surely this disc must finally change that.
In the two years since ‘Still Falls the Rain’, Phan’s pure, unworked tenor has broadened its palette, varnishing the lovely English core of the voice with softer, subtler shades and greater control. There’s a directness to Phan’s delivery, a clarity to his diction that has previously found its home in Britten’s text-driven settings. Now he looks back to Britten’s own inspirations, to the lute songs of Dowland and Morley, Purcell and Lanier – as close, perhaps, as singers get to the naked purity and exposure of Bach’s solo instrumental works.
Phan has shaped his choices into a single unfolding narrative. Love (for the ubiquitous Celia) turns to heartbreak and eventually death in a disc whose dramatic arc renders Purcell’s ‘Evening Hymn’ – the inevitable closer – cruelly poignant. Arrangements and realisations are intelligent and exquisitely played by Michael Leopold (lute) and Ann Marie Morgan (viola da gamba), shading the many repetitions of these strophic songs with delicate, telling variations – Lanier’s seven-minute ‘No more shall meads be deck’d’ reimagines its textures afresh in every verse.
Simple pleasures – musical interplay among sympathetic colleagues, text and music each revealing the other, a voice doing what it does best – are celebrated, amplified here. Sometimes the greatest sophistication lies in the greatest simplicity.