Lieder lovers gathered last night in Pickman Hall as Celebrity Series of Boston, in its Debut Series, presented tenor Nicholas Phan and pianist Myra Huang in a recital of Schubert and Britten. In proceeding thematically from spring to winter the recital reversed the order of the seasons, but the performances made the return to the cold winter an absolute treat.
The concert opened with a set of Franz Schubert songs chosen for their thematic unity: “Frühlingsglaube,” “Im Frühling,” and “Der Musensohn.” These texts (by Uhland, Schulze, and Goethe) explore the delights of spring’s return and the love now endemic to it. At the same time, each song is a small drama filled with turns and reversals of meaning or character, music matching words in conveying these shifting shades of significance. As Phan said in remarks from the stage after the first set, Schubert transformed song settings into the lieder tradition we know and perfectly mastered the musical setting of German words. The next song, “Viola,” expressed this mastery: this lengthy lied (text by von Schober) tells the tale of a pansy that bloomed too soon and was killed by the returning frost. In lesser hands this would be schmalz; Schubert makes of the song a miniature opera, filled with drama and emotion, emphasizing the subtle variations in register in the poem. As flower and frost fight, the lied is at times sweet, at times martial. The performance was like watching an entire opera performed by one singer and one piano as Huang and Phan gave each phrase its weight.
The first half of the program concluded with another set of songs: ”Frühlingssehnsucht,” “Geheimnis, ‘An Franz Schubert’,” and “Ganymed.” Rellstab’s text is a quintessential expression of the connections between springtime and love, Schubert’s setting likewise. Mayrhofer’s “Geheimnis” thematizes Schubert’s fondness for songs of spring which are so much more; the singer “er staunt in sich” (“inwardly astounded,” in Emily Ezust’s translation in the program book) and both composer and performer are “Befremdet” (“perplexed”). It is amusing to look back at a contemporary poet struggling to understand what Schubert was doing, even as now, almost two centuries later, we remain astounded and perplexed by his musical machinations. Goethe’s “Ganymed” continued the connections between spring and love, “Deiner ewigen Wärme Heilig Gefühl / Unendliche Schöne” (“its eternal warmth of sacred feelings / and endless beauty”). The emotional heat expressed here set up the second half of the concert nicely.
After intermission, the concert featured wintry songs by Benjamin Britten, who matched Schubert in his ability to set texts in his native language (as Phan noted). The opening cycle, Winter Words, explored a variety of themes in texts by Thomas Hardy; as Phan remarked, this cycle is palindromic, with the first and eighth songs sharing thematic material, the second and seventh likewise, and so on. The songs touch on the close of a wintry day and the inevitability of death, boys on trains, the innocence and experience of birds (“Wagtail and baby” and “Proud songsters” are texts reminiscent of William Blake), and death and memory. Heavy themes, but the music is light as well as serious, filled with humor and droll wit as well as the weight of such grand and tragic ideas. A set of Britten’s arrangement of folksongs rounded out this concert: “Come you not from Newcastle,” “Little Sir William,” “The last rose of summer,” “Sally in our alley,” and “The ploughboy.” Familiar songs here set magisterially, exploring in folk wisdom the big matters of life and being all the more profound for it.
In the Schubert songs, Phan impressed with crisp enunciation and beautifully dark Germanic vowels. More tellingly, he communicated the wit in the texts, a feat singers only rarely accomplish, especially in a language other than their native one. Clearly Phan is at home singing in German and the performance was the richer for it. As for his voice, I found it full and powerful, agile and smooth. The interpretations of the music were thrilling and fresh. At intermission I heard from some who had reservations; I did not. For my money, Phan is a phenomenal and exciting singer and each future appearance I shall await eagerly.
At the same time, Phan and Huang are both charismatic with great stage presence, and this enhances their ability to communicate effectively with the audience. So when Phan embarked on the wrong verse in “Frühlingsehnsucht,” then stopped, said what he did, Huang joked about how none would have known, and then they began the song again—why, we were all charmed. It is testament to their comfort with the music and on the stage that this came across so smoothly. Phan’s comfort with the music was also clear in “Sally in our alley,” where the sung ending deviated from the program text in what was clearly a rehearsed way, making the ending of this song more optimistic and also weighty, as opposed to the canonical and insipid conclusion. (The servitude of an apprenticeship acquires more focus in the ending performed; perhaps this is an alternate ending which Britten wrote but did not publish?) These made of the concert a more memorable event.
While Nicholas Phan got top billing, credit must be given to the immensely talented Myra Huang. Her piano playing is a study in variations in color, touch, timbre; she brought out the sounds of trains in Britten’s “Midnight on the Great Western” and in the corresponding “At the railway station, Upway,” she kept lines distinct and balanced throughout the concert, and she was a sensitive and nuanced collaborator throughout. She helped make this performance the experience it was and deserves equal credit.
The performers offered two encores, one each from Schubert and Britten: “Die Taubenpost” and “Greensleeves.” It was a delightful ending to this concert, hopefully the first of many Phan and Huang will give in Boston.