15 August 2014

CD REVIEW: Jonathan Dove – SONG CYCLES (C. Booth, P. Bardon, N. Spence, A. Matthews-Owens; NAXOS 8.573080)

CD REVIEW: Jonathan Dove - SONG CYCLES (NAXOS 8.573080)

JONATHAN DOVE (born 1959): Song Cycles – All You Who Sleep Tonight (1996)*, Ariel (1998), Cut My Shadow (2011)*, Out of Winter (2003)*Claire Booth, soprano; Patricia Bardon, mezzo-soprano; Nicky Spence, tenor; Andrew Matthews-Owen, piano [Recorded at Menuhin Hall, Cobham, Surrey, UK, 1 – 2 April 2014 (Out of Winter, Cut My Shadow, and All You Who Sleep Tonight) and 5 May 2014 (Ariel); NAXOS 8.573080 (The English Song Series Volume 23); 1CD, 71:10; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers; *WORLD PREMIÈME RECORDINGS]

​The prevalence of German Lieder in musicological examinations of the history of the Art of Song and in the repertoires of the foremost guardians of the legacy of Lieder singing past and present notwithstanding, perhaps the most meaningful aspect of the genre’s enduring allure is its diversity. There is no culture in which the marriage of words with music is not of tremendous artistic significance, and there is no culture in which that significance continues to be more nurtured, explored, and enriched than in that of Great Britain. From bawdy Renaissance ballads and the sensuous lute songs of John Dowland and his contemporaries to the knife’s-edge intensity of the works of Twenty-First-Century masters such as Thomas Adès and Joseph Phibbs, Britain has an uniquely prodigious and musically far-reaching Art Song tradition. The Naxos English Song Series has preserved on disc numerous worthy performances by some of today’s finest singers, but the truly extraordinary quality of the series to date is the insightfulness with which each installment’s programme has been selected. Choosing with a singer’s capabilities in mind is one thing, but Naxos discs display an uncanny gift for adapting the nuances of artists’ endeavors with unusually serendipitous representations of the best of composers’ œuvres. Thus have the most perfect songs of Butterworth, Finzi, Ireland, Quilter, Vaughan Williams, Rubbra, and Britten been recorded with conspicuous dedication, and thus are they joined via this disc with an aptly thoughtful selection of songs by Jonathan Dove. Spanning the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Mr. Dove’s work at its best—as it invariably is in the four Song Cycles offered on this disc—fuses techniques drawn from the fertile past of British Art Song with unmistakably but never off-puttingly modern sensibilities. Though indicative of an expansive individuality, these songs do not inhabit an environment from which rich harmonies and memorable, singable melodies have been excluded. Rather, these songs suggest that Mr. Dove possesses a wondrous gift for using the human voice to express what neither words nor music can convey separately. The four artists whose talents make this disc such an enjoyable listening experience give to Mr. Dove and his music performances of the sort of quality of which an earnest composer dreams. Moreover, everyone involved with this project affirms that the glorious flow of British Art Song continues uninterrupted.

An accompanist who merely accompanies can be of incalculable harm to a recital or recording of Art Songs. These concentrations of composers’ creative impulses can, under the most felicitous circumstances, be opportunities for chamber music-like cooperation among singers and accompanists. The ideal accompanist for collaborative music like the songs of Jonathan Dove is an artistic partner who sings through his playing: if there is not the sense that his hands are as alert and responsive to the melodic contours of a song as is the singer’s voice, he is a music box, not a true musician. In the performances on this disc, recorded by Naxos with natural but meticulously-managed balances among voices and piano, each of the three singers finds in Welsh pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen not just an intelligent, attentive accompanist but also—more importantly—an artistic friend and fellow traveler. Mr. Matthews-Owen’s technical mastery of the composer’s wide-ranging style is never in doubt, but the adaptability that he displays in traversing Mr. Dove’s evolving idiom is evidence of an exceptional level of musicality. In his interactions with each of the singers, Mr. Matthews-Owen matches the cadences of his playing to the singer’s phrasing without distorting the specific architecture of Mr. Dove’s music or sacrificing the singularity of his own artistry. It is to be hoped that any accompanist worth his keep respects his colleagues by having a complete acquaintance with the music at hand, but only the truly important accompanists—artists of the caliber of Coenraad V. Bos, Gerald Moore, and, in his exquisitely thought-out but seemingly spontaneous traversals with Sir Peter Pears of the Lieder cycles of Schubert and Schumann, Benjamin Britten—give life to their contributions to Lieder recitals with the same concentration and interpretive integrity as the singers they support. Every note that Mr. Matthews-Owen plays on this disc is shaped by an abidingly energetic elegance. His technique is equal to the most strenuous of Mr. Dove’s demands, and the poetry of his playing reaches depths of expressivity that can be accessed only by an artist who understands that accompanying a Lieder recital is not an exercise in following or leading but an act of musical camaraderie of the highest order. 

A setting of texts by the celebrated Welsh tenor and conductor Robert Tear, who premièred the present cycle in 2003 and whose unforgettable 2004 Wigmore Hall recital included performances of songs by Mr. Dove that belied the singer’s sixty-five years, Out of Winter is rousingly sung in this recording by tenor Nicky Spence. To some extent, Mr. Spence’s singing is not unlike that of Mr. Tear, whose performances were lauded for their psychological sagacity. Vocally, Mr. Spence’s performances of Mr. Dove’s Songs replicate certain qualities of Mr. Tear’s singing in its prime: elaborate but never precious use of text, unrestrained but unfailingly noble emoting, and phrasing that follows the natural flow and nuances of the words even when this interferes with vocal comfort are hallmarks of Mr. Spence’s singing in this performance, but his voice is more flexible and resonantly beautiful than that of his acclaimed predecessor. In the six songs of Out of Winter, Mr. Spence combines the boyish charm of his natural instrument with intelligence and wit. Mr. Tear’s Thomas Hardy-inspired texts are not of the quality of those by Federico García Lorca, William Shakespeare, and Vikram Seth employed by Mr. Dove in the other cycles on this disc, but they offer composer, singer, and pianist plentiful opportunities for dramatic expression. At the top of the range required by this music, Mr. Spence is occasionally pressed, and his highest notes can take on a glassy quality that never interferes with accuracy of pitch. Even when most severely taxed, however, Mr. Spence sings fearlessly, and Mr. Matthews-Owen never falters in his collaboration with Mr. Spence, instinctively allowing space when needed for Mr. Spence’s voice to take flight. The young tenor, whose Metropolitan Opera début as Brian in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys gave notice of the emergence of a lean-toned lyric tenor of exceptional promise, offers some of the best singing of his career to date in this performance, his rugged but sweet voicing of Mr. Dove’s songs drawing from his exuberant artistic personality charismatic explorations of all of the ennui, anxiety, and burgeoning vitality in Mr. Tear’s texts and Mr. Dove’s music.

From her first note in Cut My Shadow, Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon unites the poise familiar from her performances of Händel rôles with the mystery of her insouciant, irresistible Carmen in complex, splendidly incisive performances of Mr. Dove’s songs. Mr. Dove’s series of settings of Gwynne Edwards’s translations of three of Federico García Lorca’s most emblematic poems (‘Sorpresa,’ ‘La Guitarra,’ and ‘Canción del naranjo seco,’ from which the cycle’s title is taken—‘Córtame la sombra,’ in García Lorca’s Spanish), Cut My Shadow is as evocative a musical depiction of García Lorca’s idiosyncratic intellectual domains as has ever been composed. Ms. Bardon infuses her granitic tone with shades of pewter in her expression of the stark verismo of ‘Surprise,’ and the unrelenting oppression of ‘The Guitar’ inspires Ms. Bardon to singing of thorny defiance that gushes from her sensitive enunciation of the words. A restless sorrow permeates García Lorca’s ‘Canción del naranjo seco,’ and this also courses through Mr. Dove’s music. The arid sobriety of Ms. Bardon’s singing makes the bleakness of ‘Song of the Dry Orange Tree’ more piercing. The steadiness of Ms. Bardon’s tone is sometimes imperiled by vowel placements, and though her commitment to preserving clear diction is admirable, the focus of her singing is marginally undermined. In her performance of All You Who Sleep Tonight, Ms. Bardon channels operatic intensity without imposing any prima donna mannerisms on the music. In the five successive ‘movements’ of All You Who Sleep Tonight, Ms. Bardon approaches the music with the nimbleness of a practiced exponent of bel canto. She joins Mr. Matthews-Owen in scrutinizing all of the joy, disappointment, triumph, and crisis of the human condition transformed into song by Mr. Dove. Vikram Seth’s texts dance and dart through the wisdom and confusion of casual and consequential relationships, and Mr. Dove’s music ranges from the appropriate triviality of ‘Mistaken’ to the fiery disintegration of ‘God’s Love.’ In ‘Soon,’ Mr. Dove created one of the most moving songs of the past half-century, and the performance that it receives in this recording, all suggestions of sentimentality stripped from the crushing feelings of the text, taps the most profound vein of the Art of Song. Singer and pianist audibly merge their own souls with those of the poet and composer, and the results shimmer with an unfiltered humanity that is rarely articulated even in Lieder.

Soprano Claire Booth’s performance of the unaccompanied Ariel, a quintet of excerpts from Ariel’s lines in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is both earthy and ethereal, revealing the unstoppable cleverness of Mr. Dove’s treatments of Shakespeare’s immortal words. Unlike many composers, Mr. Dove obviously is not awed by the task of setting Shakespearean texts to music: Ariel possesses a naturalness that many Shakespeare settings lack, and Ms. Booth transforms the details of Mr. Dove’s sparkling music with singing of power and pulchritude. The aura of her Ariel is decidedly feminine, and this underscores the androgynous but strangely sensual essence of the character: this is a sophisticated, eerily wily sprite, as much Mr. Dove’s own as Shakespeare’s—and, in this performance, very much Ms. Booth’s urbane creation. The well-known ‘Full fathom five’ expectedly appears in Ariel, but Mr. Dove also set less-familiar passages, culminating in the provocative vocalise of ‘O, O, O,’ the cycle’s central song. Ms. Booth confronts every difficulty of the music without hesitation, and the sunbursts of tone at the top of her range are invigorating. There are a few vocal ‘sound effects’ that, while true to the character, add little to the haunting musical portrait of Ariel that Ms. Booth conjures. Ms. Booth’s superb singing effectively portrays the ethos of Ariel, however; and also the entirety of Mr. Dove’s cunning reinvention of this eternally fascinating persona.

As musical styles fall from favor and are replaced by different fashions in the broadly cyclical advancement of Art, the unchanging power of Song is derived from the inimitable ability of amalgamations of words and music to transcend the incorporeal capacities of either art to captivate the senses on its own. The best Art Songs, whether created for grimy taverns or gilded concert halls, transport the listener to places that he recognizes not from novels or films but from his own life. Neither language nor musical idiom matters: hearing Dowland’s ‘In darkness let me dwell,’ Schubert’s Winterreise, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, or Tippett’s The Heart’s Assurance is like looking in a mirror. The reflection is not always welcome, but it is honest in ways that tangible modes of expression cannot be. The song cycles on this disc are mirrors polished to almost blinding luminosity by Jonathan Dove, and the performances by Patricia Bardon, Claire Booth, Nicky Spence, and Andrew Matthews-Owen are reflections both of new trajectories in contemporary Lieder and of timeless traditions undiminished since man first wed his speech to song.