Today is the release date for tenor Nicholas Phan’s latest album on Avie Records, Gods & Monsters. According to the advance material, this project fulfills “a life-long fascination with myths and legends.” From a musical point of view, the repertoire focuses entirely on Austrian and German composers from the Romantic period, which is definitely a time when artists of all different talents were turning to such myths and legends for inspiration. The specific composers are (in alphabetical order) Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Hugo Wolf. Phan’s accompanist in this project is pianist Myra Huang.
For those in London and those willing to make travel plans, this album serves a second purpose. Next month Phan will be making his recital debut at Wigmore Hall. His plan is to present this Gods & Monsters theme as the program for this debut. It would thus be reasonable to view this release as a “sneak preview” for that recital debut.
The album itself has been organized into five “topics” with the following titles:
- Mount Olympus
- Knights & Kings
- Things that Go Bump in the Night
- Fairy Tales
Presumably, these are labels that Phan chose, although the classifications tend to overlap. Fairy tales are frequently about royalty, and the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm often involve a fascination with those things that go bump in the night. Indeed, when one dives into the texts of the specific songs, there are strong indications that both the categories and the selections have been a bit arbitrary.
None of this should matter to the serious listener. Phan’s tenor voice is well suited to the rhetorical proclivities of the composers he has selected. As a result, his technique and subjective approach to interpretation join forces to place each of the songs on this album in a favorable light, even when the composer is someone like Beethoven, who was never that comfortable with the vocal repertoire, or Mendelssohn, whose interests seem to have had more to do with piano virtuosity and his colleague Robert Schumann.
The primary sources of interest on this album are, as is probably expected, Schubert, Wolf, and Mahler. What is important is how, as a vocalist, Phan has a solid sense of how to approach each of these composers; and that sense has more to do with the characteristic styles of those composers than with the texts they are setting. For example he knows how to deal with the fragility of Wolf’s mental state without exploiting that state as an excuse for over-emoting. In a similar vein the most moving performance may well be that of Mahler’s “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,” whose text (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) is a narrative unto itself, allowing Phan to present his talents as a sympathetic storyteller.
As a result the value of this new album may reside in the extent to which it amounts to a “virtual recital,” regardless of whether or not that recital has been given a “thematic organization.”