Britten: Winter Words, Op. 52; Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op. 22

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Winter Words, Op. 52; Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op. 22
PERFORMER: Nicholas Phan (tenor), Myra Huang (piano)

There are numerous tenors around now with the stamina Britten requires in the Michelangelo Sonnets. I would put William Burden and Toby Spence at the top of my list, but the favoured recording artists tend to be the likes of Mark Padmore and Ian Bostridge – sensitive plants both, but no musclemen vocally.
So welcome, please, Nicholas Phan, caught at the right stage in his career, though fortunately not as callow as Peter Pears when he first recorded the Sonnets with new love Britten in 1942. Phan has both the introspection and the power for this idiosyncratic approach to Italian fire, though the fine-spun top could spread under further pressure, and the over-miked voice, complete with studio back-echo, needs to keep its distance – a black mark against the producer/engineer here.
Frankly, too, I would have insisted on retakes with more spot-on notes as Britten wrote them, though you won’t notice without a score, and the approach fits naturally with Phan’s delivery. The Hardy tableaux of Winter Words are all atmospherically evoked alongside the best – Philip Langridge, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (still supreme for me in the Michelangelo settings) – but what wins this disc its five stars is the spacious, deeply moving delivery of my favourite among all the folksong settings, ‘The Last Rose of Summer’. Pianist Myra Huang could do with a bit more searing radiance in the sharp-key Italian numbers, but always catches the distant gleam and proves a superb ghost-partner in ‘The Ash Grove’. Phan in songs from the Savoy operas next, please. David Nice