As You Like It: Shakespeare Songs
Rich and quite strange, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is the only possible summation of this dazzling, bewildering collection of songs written for and inspired by Shakespeare. Spence is game for anything, starting with usual suspects (Purcell, Schubert and Quilter), creating donkey noises for Wolf’s ‘Lied des transferierten Zettel’, going to emotional depths in Argento’s marvellously spare Elizabethan Songs and bending his pliable tenor around the Cleo Laine-ish vocal lines in John Dankworth’s ‘Dunsinane Blues’. Peter Dickinson’s Schubert in Blue is a send-up of Schubert’s ‘Horch, horch, die Lerch’, in which Spence seems to channel Ethel Merman while never sounding like anything but an English tenor. Britten and Poulenc are paired setting the same text, ‘Fancie’, with contrasting emotional temperature: Britten’s is a scherzo, Poulenc’s an adagio.
One shouldn’t be expected to like all of it. Shakespeare attracts great composers of every stripe, often exercising a creative freedom that comes knowing that the play – not their music – will carry the evening. Even Haydn was coaxed into setting English-language text in his disarmingly intense ‘She never told her love’. A major presence in this starry company is the young composer Alex Woolf, whose Three Tempestuous Tunes strike out in many musical and dramatic directions in a matter of seconds, allowing the Shakespearean characters of his choice to address the listener with first-person immediacy.
Initially, Spence presents himself as a well-groomed, somewhat unoriginal singer who meticulously rounds phrases and applies vibrato without great thought about what the music is saying. Soon, though, one realises he is indeed original, suggesting that an undercurrent in his disc is a catalogue of singing styles. Sadly, Spence’s impetuosity leads him to over-sing, with the microphones amplifying his vocal aggression at the expense of his artistry. Couldn’t Martineau have stopped him?