Britten Les Illuminations; Debussy Ariettes oubliées; Fauré La bonne chanson
Nicholas Phan (tenor), Myra Huang (piano); Telegraph Quartet; The Knights
Avie AV2382 62:58 mins
This recital combines three masterworks of the French song repertoire. First, Fauré’s cycle of love songs from the early 1890s, La bonne chanson, in its timbrally rich version for string quintet, piano and voice. Then Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées, startlingly innovative settings of text by his beloved poet Paul Verlaine. The odd one out is Britten’s Les Illuminations, dating from half a century later. Notwithstanding clichés about smooth French style, all three cycles are text-driven, so I longed for more cutting consonants and tonal variety alongside the many liquid vowels in the Fauré and Debussy. The musicians spring to life in the Britten settings, revealing a more playful approach to this spiky, weird poetry. Nicholas Phan is brilliantly supported by the instrumentalists’ technicolour playing. Much of Phan’s soft singing is tenderly handled, and the moments where he slips into a transparent falsetto, as in Debussy’s ‘L’ombre des arbres’, are deeply moving. But louder singing is marred by an unruly vibrato, also evident on his earlier recordings. Myra Huang is fleet and controlled, although at times overpowered in the balance. The liner notes by Phan offer no insights into the fascinating transformations of poetry, music and art in late 19th-century Paris, but provide an enjoyable romp through these poets’ and musicians’ tangled love affairs.