courtesy of Naxos of America
This past Friday Avie Records released its latest album of tenor Nicholas Phan, entitled Illuminations. The title refers to the last selection on the disc, Benjamin Britten’s Opus 18 song cycle, scored for soprano or tenor and string orchestra and first performed in 1940. Britten, in turn, took his title from Illuminations, an uncompleted collection of prose poems by Arthur Rimbaud. Whey they appeared in book form published in October of 1886, Paul Verlaine, who had been Rimbaud’s mentor and then his lover, proposed the title Les Illuminations, which is also the title that Britten used when he set selections from this collection.
Phan chose to precede his Britten selection with two settings of Verlaine’s poetry. There earlier of these was La Bonne Chanson, which Verlaine wrote as love poems to Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville, who was 16 years old at the time, between the winter of 1869 and the spring of 1870. (Verlaine was then 25, and he married the object of his affections shortly after completing his collection of poems.) Between 1892 and 1894 Gabriel Fauré set nine of the poems from that collection, scoring the accompaniment for both piano and string quartet.
Verlaine has his first contact (through a letter) with Rimbaud in September of 1871; and by the following year he had abandoned both his wife and their son. So began his stormy relationship with Rimbaud. In 1886 Claude Debussy set six of Verlaine’s poems from that time for voice and piano, giving the collection the title Ariettes oubliées (forgotten songs). Note that, while Fauré was the older composer, Debussy wrote his set before La Bonne Chanson; and Phan arranged his album according to the chronology of the texts, rather than the music.
One result is that the attentive listener who approaches this album as a whole is likely to experience a sense of a noticeable darkening of mood. There is a genuine warmth of affection in the Fauré settings; and the composer’s decision to supplement piano accompaniment with a string quartet enhances that warmth. This is ensemble work at its best; and the members of the Telegraph Quartet (violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw) knew exactly how to blend with pianist Myra Huang to provide just the right context through which Phan could express Verlaine’s intense passions. However, by the time of the poems that Debussy set, that intensity had acquired a sharper edge; and, through his chemistry with Huang, Phan knew how to home in on the poets darker moods.
It would not have escaped Britten that the poems of Les Illuminations were those of a dark soul. By 1939, when Britten began work on Les Illuminations, he had cultivated a prodigious knowledge base on the string ensemble. (He had been working with string since 1934, when he transformed his juvenilia into his Opus 4 “Simple” symphony.) He understood the full breath of sonorities afforded by those instruments, and he had unfailing skills when it came to blending those sonorities. It goes without saying that his understanding of the tenor voice was just as comprehensive, given his relationship with tenor Peter Pears. The string players of The Knights clearly knew how to present Britten’s skill set in the best possible light, thus providing just the right context in which Phan could plumb the dark depths from which Rimbaud conceived the poems that Britten chose to set.
One may thus say that any sense of illumination has faded by the final track of this new recording; but, however, dark it may be, this is a journey well worth taking, particularly for those interested in how both Verlaine and Rimbaud inspired new approaches to musical expressiveness.