01 September 2014

CD REVIEW: Holst, Ireland, Quilter, Vaughan Williams, & Willan – LOVE’S MINSTRELS (Philippe Sly, bass-baritone; Michael McMahon, piano; Analekta AN 2 9967)


GUSTAV HOLST (1874 – 1934), JOHN IRELAND (1879 – 1962), ROGER QUILTER (1877 – 1953), RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 – 1958), and HEALEY WILLAN (1880 – 1968): Love’s Minstrels – English Songs from the 19th and 20th CenturiesPhilippe Sly, bass-baritone; Michael McMahon, piano [Recorded in Oscar Peterson Concert Hall, Concordia University, Montréal, Québec, Canada, in September 2013; Analekta AN 2 9967; 1CD, 62:19; Available from Analekta, Amazon (Canada), Amazon (USA), jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

When Classical Music is summoned to the dock to defend itself against charges of irrelevance and insignificance, one of the most damning pieces of evidence trumpeted by the prosecution is the perceived paucity of artists of merit who are worthy of advancing the traditions upheld by the great musicians of the past. One of the most confounding ambiguities in the Performing Arts—and surely one of the most disheartening for young artists—is the lamenting of the fallen standards in Classical Music by those who supposedly are the staunchest defenders of its future. The young singer who takes on Schubert’s Winterreise or Schumann’s Dichterliebe must contend not only with the efforts of his contemporaries but also—more perilously—with memories of artists of the past. If he must always face the attitude that this or that singer said all that can be said about a piece, as it were, why does he carry on? Why does he sacrifice so much of himself in the practice of an art in which in the esteem of some observers he will never be better than second-best? Such are things that can crush the spirit of a sensitive artist. However, there is also the reality that a young artist might be for today’s audiences that paragon by whose example they measure all future performers. In this recital of songs by Gustav Holst, John Ireland, Roger Quilter, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Healey Willan, Ottawa-born bass-baritone Philippe Sly confirms both that he should lose no sleep over comparisons with the finest Lieder singers of the past and that he is an artist who contemporary listeners will recall to their grandchildren as a representative of a storied Golden Age of Song. Here, he truly is, as the disc’s title suggests, love’s minstrel: whether singing of joy or sorrow, he is a storyteller whose tales ravish the ears and the heart.

An insightful interpreter of a large spectrum of styles ranging from the Baroque to new music, Mr. Sly possesses a voice of considerable attractiveness over which he exercises exceptionally level-headed control. Vocally, he is a legitimate successor to the traditions of Édouard de Reszke and Pol Plançon, his singing combining refinement, power, and utter dedication to the music. These qualities are mirrored in Michael McMahon’s sensitive yet rousing pianism, and together Mr. Sly and Mr. McMahon descend far into the emotional depths of the songs on Love’s Minstrels. The English folksong settings of Healey Willan, the London-born composer and organist who spent the last half-century of his life in Mr. Sly’s native Ontario, are far too little known and appreciated. The directness of expression that Mr. Sly devotes to his singing of Willan’s settings of ‘Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes’ and ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ is arresting, but as in all the songs on this disc the element of his performances that most commands attention and appreciation is the full-throated beauty of the vocalism. Mr. Sly is the rare singer who can maintain the roundness and focus of his tone at all dynamic levels, and his piano and pianissimo singing on this disc—in which he wholly avoids the self-conscious crooning employed by many singers—is tremendously impressive. Mr. McMahon responds instinctively to Mr. Sly’s vocal manipulations of nuances of text, phrasing his playing in perfect synchronicity with the singer. The familiar ‘Londonderry Air,’ here a strangely unsettling piece, and ‘Loch Lomond’ are pensively done, highlighting the subtle wit and quiet melancholy of Willan’s artful arrangements.

Like Willan’s folksong arrangements, John Ireland’s Three Masefield Ballads, settings of poems from John Masefield’s 1916 maritime-themed Salt-Water Poems and Ballads, do not receive the attention and admiration that they deserve from both musicians and audiences. Unlike the texts of many of the songs on Love’s Minstrels, however, Masefield’s ballads are not great literature, but they compellingly convey the atmosphere of the sea. Mr. Sly’s singing of ‘Sea Fever’ evokes the agitation of seagoing livelihood, and in both ‘The Bells of San Marie’ and ‘The Vagabond’ he and Mr. McMahon create very specific portraits of life on and by the sea, evoking not only the pungent sensations suggested by the text but also the very spirit of England.

Roger Quilter’s Five Shakespeare Songs are not unknown, but they rarely enjoy the kind of verbal and musical acuity that Mr. Sly and Mr. McMahon bring to them. ‘Fear No More the Heat O’ the Sun’ from Cymbeline is one of the most gorgeously lyrical speeches in any of Shakespeare’s plays, and Mr. Sly sings Quilter’s distinguished setting of it—music not unworthy of the words—with what seems a very individual profundity that is almost unbearably poignant. ‘Under the Greenwood Tree,’ Amiens’s song from As You Like It, is delivered with great clarity of thought and complementary leanness of phrasing. Mr. Sly’s singing of ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass,’ also from As You Like It, captures the lilting courtliness of Shakespeare’s verse, and the union of the singer’s velvet tone with Mr. McMahon’s lulling simplicity of approach makes of ‘Take, O Take Those Lips Away,’ the boy’s song from Measure for Measure, ninety seconds of penetrative bliss. ‘Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain’ from Twelfth Night is also performed with intelligence and dramatic purpose that honor both Shakespeare and Quilter.

The disc draws its title from a song in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s popular 1903 cycle The House of Life. Employing texts by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Vaughan Williams produced an episodic, slyly enchanting traversal of the gamut of love’s tribulations. Even when his melodies are most bucolic, the composer conjures a pragmatic world that seems to shrug its shoulders at love with a resigned, ‘cannot live with it, cannot live without it’ mentality. Stylistically, these are some of Vaughan Williams’s most characteristic songs, their harmonies prefiguring his 1929 opera The Poisoned Kiss, and stirring performances of the cycle have been recorded by singers as diverse as Kathleen Ferrier, Sir Thomas Allen, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. Add Mr. Sly to the ranks of these luminaries. His account of ‘Silent Noon,’ the most familiar of the songs in The House of Life, has Ferrier’s pointed austerity, Allen’s aristocratic but unaffected enunciation, and Rolfe Johnson’s honeyed vocal elocution, as well as his own unique emotional earnestness. Mr. Sly and Mr. McMahon construct a logical narrative progression through the cycle, their performances of ‘Love-Sight,’ ‘Love’s Minstrels,’ and ‘Hearts Haven’ inviting the listener into an acutely cerebral dissection of love and longing. The gravity of Mr. Sly’s singing of ‘Death-in-Love’ and ‘Love’s Last Gift’ reveals layers of meaning that many singers leave unexplored. Beyond the British Isles, Vaughan Williams’s songs are too often regarded primarily as pleasantries: the urgency of Mr. Sly’s singing of The House of Life not only validates the faith in these works that British singers have displayed in the century since their composition but also vindicates Vaughan Williams’s significance as a composer of songs.

Using the composer’s translations of ancient Sanskrit texts, the three songs from Gustav Holst’s Opus 24 Hymns from the Rig Veda recorded by Mr. Sly—‘Ushas’ (‘Dawn’), ‘Varuna I’ (‘Sky’), and ‘Maruts’ (‘Stormclouds’)—present challenges to both singer and pianist. The complex, obdurately metaphysical texts inspired Holst to fashion music of intriguing, almost deceptive inventiveness. Holst was an accomplished tunesmith, and Mr. Sly and Mr. McMahon recognize in every melodic strand of Holst’s music the stark sentiments that lie beneath the surfaces of the vocal lines. Mr. Sly makes of ‘Ushas,’ ‘Varuna I,’ and ‘Maruts’ an organic linear depiction of the past, present, and future of existential humanity, a sort of holy trinity of desire, fulfillment, and regret. The firmness of Mr. Sly’s singing throughout his range enables him to transform passages that on the page seem inconsequential into surges of ardor that elucidate unexpected interpretive details. Aided by the flexibility of Mr. McMahon’s accompaniment, Mr. Sly is never content merely to sing songs: in the Holst songs and all of the pieces on Love’s Minstrels, he communicates startlingly inward intuitions in music.

The quality that separates important Lieder singers from merely proficient ones is passion, and passion resonates in every song on this disc. Moreover, the vocal beauty heard on this disc surpasses the work of many of the most acclaimed interpreters of Lieder. So many recital discs are now egotistical rather than artistic journeys or else vapid commercial ventures, but the soul of a superb singer and uncommonly expressive artist is bared in this recording. There are moments on this disc that are emotionally raw, almost painful to hear because they are so uncomfortably honest, but they charm as surely as the passages of light-heartedness. Love’s Minstrels is undoubtedly the work of an important Lieder singer and musical artisan. So intimate and personal are Philippe Sly’s interpretations of these fascinating songs that it also seems like a conversation with a much-loved friend.