Yesterday evening at the Hotel Rex, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the second recital in its 2017 Spring Salons series. The recitalist was tenor Nicholas Phan, who has recently moved to San Francisco and has been appointed SFP Vocalist-in-Residence. The title of the concert was Gods & Monsters, which is also the title of Phan’s latest album for Avie Records, released in January, as well as the title of his debut recital at Wigmore Hall in London, which he gave last month.
Yesterday evening’s performance provided a generous account of the album. The number of tracks omitted could be counted on one hand. Each of the four key “topics” was represented by either three or four songs. The program began at the top of Mount Olympus with three songs by Franz Schubert, two of which set poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Phan then descended to the earthly realm of “Knights and Kings” with Goethe settings by Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven and settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn by both Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler.
The Beethoven selection was actually a song about a flea that Mephistopheles sings in a tavern; so it might have fit just as well into the following “Things that Go Bump in the Night” section. This section offered the greatest diversity of poets, a different one for each of the four songs: Matthäus Kasimir von Collin (Schubert), Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (Robert Schumann), Eduard Mörike (Hugo Wolf), and Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty (Felix Mendelssohn). Two more of Wolf’s Mörike settings were included in the final “Fairy Tales” section, along with a Schumann setting of Hermann Kletke. This theme also covered the encore selection with the one departure from German into English and the only piece from the twentieth century, “Giants in the Sky” (with both music and words by Stephen Sondheim) from the musical Into the Woods.
In this intimate setting it was possible to appreciate the full breadth of Phan’s dynamic range. There was a bone-chilling stillness in his account of Mahler’s “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” (where the beautiful trumpets blow) in which a maiden is visited by her soldier sweetheart; and it is only in the final line of the poem that the narrative discloses that her visitor is a ghost. In Wolf’s “Storchenbotschaft” (stork’s message), Phan’s command of facial expressions perfectly captured the comic revelation that the protagonist is about to become the father of twins. On the other hand he brought his account of Wolf’s “Der Feuerreiter” (the fire-rider) to the brink of unbridled hysteria, keeping the listener guessing as to whether the protagonist, who rides is horse headlong into a burning mill, is mortal or supernatural.
Similarly, Phan knew how to pace the overall program. He knew full well that the sort of outburst of melodrama that Wolf could command so skillfully could not be just another shot in an ongoing salvo. The moments of highest intensity always stood out from the quieter (even if just as sinister) instances of rhetoric that surrounded them. The result was a one-hour recital in which every moment was meticulously calculated for its impact from beginning to end. This served as an exhilarating reminder of just how far we have progressed from those one-thing-after-another recitals which used to be the norm for concert practices.
Phan has become a familiar face in our concert halls, having given splendid performances with both the San Francisco Symphony and Philharmonia Baroque. Yesterday evening made the case that he is just as much at home in the art song recital setting. Furthermore, he clearly knows how to use that setting to exercise his own capacity for innovation. We should all hope to hear more of that capacity.