Nicholas Phan displays first-class artistry in Boston recital debut

April 18, 2014 at 2:02 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Tenor Nicholas Phan performed songs of Britten and Schubert Thursday night at Pickman Hall for the Celebrity Series.

Nicholas Phan has always admired the music of Benjamin Britten. But admiration turned into an obsession about eight years ago when the tenor came across the composer’s Winter Words in preparation for a recital.

Since then he has made Britten’s music a specialty through a series of recitals and two critically acclaimed recordings that include this cycle, the Canticles, and other of the composer’s songs.

On the surface, Winter Words, part of Phan’s recital debut for the Celebrity Series at Pickman Hall Thursday night, could easily describe the current weather in Boston. As temperatures dipped once again into the 30s, one could easily relate to the cry that concludes the final song of the set: “How long, how long?”

Yet the verses by Thomas Hardy deal less with seasonal themes than with the loss of innocence. Britten’s music creates the imagery. Churning piano phrases capture the clickety-clack of trains speeding down a track, and bristly clusters of chords are left to hang in space like distant whistles.

With his crystalline diction, clarion vocal tone, and expressive facial gestures, Phan proved an excellent actor to bring out the stories these songs tell. He had a perfect partner in Myra Huang. Throughout, her playing at the piano was clean and direct, clear as a country creek.

Phan captured the calm, stately presence of the vicar in “The Choirmaster’s Burial,” the fifth song of Winter Words. For the opening of “At the Railway Station,” he softened his tone to capture the sweet innocence of the young boy talking to a convict. He sang a sweet line over Huang’s smooth wash of harmonies in the final song, “Before life and after.”

The duo continued with an equally colorful offering of Britten’s folksong arrangements.

With simple accompaniments and polished style, folksong settings had long been the stuff of antiquarian study and drawing room pleasure listening. Yet Britten, like Charles Villiers Stanford before him, gave this repertoire the musical depth and imagery of Schubert lieder.

In Britten’s settings, the accompaniment sometimes occupies a different world from the vocal line, yet both manage to bring out the meaning of the text. The imagery was palpable in Britten’s arrangement of Thomas Moore’s most famous song The Last Rose of Summer. Phan’s yearning, resonant statements broke into ghostly phrases, while, underneath, Huang passed waves of dark harmonies, capturing the loneliness of the season’s last flower. Even in a short humorous song like The Ploughboy Britten’s music breaks from simple accompaniment to supply the scenery. Huang floated long trickling lines over Phan’s witty phrases, portraying a whistling young farmhand as he dreams of a life as a wealthy self-serving politician.

The Schubert songs that opened the recital, with their themes of springtime, complemented Britten’s winter world.

Songs by Schubert and Britten have more in common than one might think. Both involve colorful piano writing and masterful treatment of language, and Schubert’s lieder was often the stuff of Britten’s and his partner Peter Pears’ own solo recitals.

Johann Baptist Mayrhofer’s lyrics to Geheimnis, heard on the program, implored Schubert to tell of his secret to song writing, yet the text could just as easily pose the question to Phan for his widely expressive singing.

Der Musensohn surfeits with churning piano accompaniment and carefree melody. The duo dug in for a spirited reading, Phan’s lines ringing out with the zeal of a country minister’s sermon. He also gave soulful lyricism to Frühlingsglaube and Im Frühling, while Huang supplied a flowering garden of piano filigree. Phan’s slip into the wrong verse in Frühlingssehnsucht didn’t stop the duo from delivering a bustling performance the second time around.

But the gem of this set was Viola, a dramatic song that casts the story of a pansy killed by late spring frost into a tale where a bride, jilted at the altar, withers and dies from heartbreak. From a bell-tone opening, Phan and Huang moved into phrases of searching depth. Huang’s tenderly played accompaniment dwindled into frosty wisps well suited to the song’s mournful ending.

The duo offered Schubert’s Die Taubenpost and Britten’s haunting arrangement of Greensleeves as encores.

The next Celebrity Series event will feature soprano Deborah Voigt and pianist Brian Zeger in recital 3 p.m. April 27 at Symphony Hall. celebrityseries.org.

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