A Musical Zoo
Ravel: Histoires naturelles; plus songs by Barber, Britten, Duke, Fauré, Howells, Ireland, Musorgsky, Schubert, R Schumann, Shostakovich, R Strauss and Wolf
Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), Joseph Middleton (piano)
Chandos CHAN 20184 75:13 mins
When it’s not cultivating the cockroach or gelling with a jellyfish, there are another 36 species embraced by Ashley Riches’s musical zoo. Such a composer-hopping embarrassment of riches could prove a little fidgety, but happily the menagerie is anchored by two extended sets of songs: Ravel’s delicious Histoires naturelles, five snapshots of the natural world as acutely observed and nuanced as anything to be found in Janáček; plus Vernon Duke’s whimsical foray into the epigrammatic tongue-in-cheekery of Ogden Nash.
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Embracing German, French, Russian and English, not to mention moods ranging from lambent lullaby to directions including ‘acute suffering’ and ‘kind of groovy’, Riches has the versatility to sound at home in any language or musical idiom. He possesses a natural authority that never has to strive for effect, and his warm, supple bass-baritone is eminently ‘grounded’ – whether revelling in the jocular heaviness of Musorgsky’s oft-scratched flea, or creating a sense of enrapt contentment as Ravel’s angler contemplates the kingfisher that has alighted on his rod. Particularly persuasive are the English settings, among them Ireland’s The Three Ravens (beautifully characterised by pianist Joseph Middleton) and Howells’s King David; but Wolf’s Ratcatcher affords plenty of swaggering bravado to both performers, while the 13-year-old Richard Strauss impresses beyond his years. In all, imaginatively plotted and beautifully recorded.
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