Named one of NPR's Favorite Artists of 2011, American tenor Nicholas Phan returns to the music of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) on a new album available today, October 9 from Avie.
On the eve of the Britten centenary, Still Falls the Rain showcases both the great British composer's remarkable gift as a collaborator and Phan's increasingly lauded interpretative powers. The album features The Heart of the Matter, a song cycle for tenor, narrator, horn, and piano, performed here by renowned actor Alan Cumming, as well as the principal hornist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Jennifer Montone, and pianist Myra Huang, Phan's long-time recital partner.
The album also includes: A Birthday Hansel, Op. 92; Canticle V – The Death of Saint Narcissus, Op. 89; Folksong Arrangements for Voice and Harp, with the award-winning Israeli harpist Sivan Magen; and Folksong Arrangements for Voice and Piano, including "Greensleeves" and "The Holly and the Ivy." Phan's previous Britten release, his solo debut recording, Winter Words, was a breakthrough project for Phan; it made many "Best of 2011" lists, including those of the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Out New York, the Boston Globe, and the Toronto Star. Phan will celebrate the release of Still Falls the Rain with a Britten program at New York's popular downtown music club Le Poisson Rouge on October 15.
"My idea for Still Falls the Rain was to focus on Britten as a collaborator – he wrote much of his music for specific musicians, which accounts for some of the unusual instrumental combinations in his vocal chamber music," says Phan. The previous album, Winter Words, contained song repertoire that Britten created for his life-partner, tenor Peter Pears, including the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo and the cycle of Thomas Hardy settings which gave the album its name. For the second album, the musical focus is Britten's relationships with other musicians. In addition to The Heart of the Matter – inspired by the poet Edith Sitwell and hornist Dennis Brain – the remainder of the album consists of the complete songs that the composer wrote for Pears to perform with harpist Osian Ellis when, toward the end of his life, Britten himself was too ill to accompany Pears in recital.
For The Heart of the Matter, Phan happily – and gratefully – engaged the noted actor Alan Cumming as narrator. Phan explains the background of this work and his appreciation for Cumming's contribution:
Britten conceived of this piece for a special night at the Aldeburgh Festival, and it was only performed once in his lifetime. He wanted to showcase the poetry of Edith Sitwell, who was famous at the time for being a reader. So there are spoken poems as part of this piece in addition to the poetry that Britten set to music. We were so lucky to get Alan Cumming to come and read these spoken portions of the piece. Alan is just amazing on the album because he's a master of dealing with text. He is such a virtuoso that he just performed all of the roles in Macbeth in a one-man production of Shakespeare's play – both at Lincoln Center and at the National Theater of Scotland. In his reading of Sitwell's expressively colorful poetry you can really hear how he can pull every emotional nuance out of the text. The way he reads these poems is very moving.
The Connecticut-born, Michigan-raised Phan documents his journey as a musician in his blog HERE. The tenor explains its name: "I sing. I travel. I am half Greek and half Chinese – thus, the blog's name, a combination of the two nationalities in French."
Additional information about Nicholas Phan, including a complete biography, is available at the artist's website: www.nicholas-phan.com.