With the world in such a mess due to the ravages of COVID-19 and the incessant lying of the United States’ commander-in-thief (aka: WPE—Worst President Ever), how refreshing indeed to lift off an album of English Songs a la Française with the magical words of Robert Louis Stevenson and the deft, discreet compositional techniques of Reynaldo Hahn.
The artistic trust (Tyler Duncan, baritone and pianist Erika Switzer) prove the wisdom of this production from the very first measures of “The Swing”. Innocence abounds through the brief five-song set and the very young (along with those young at heart—even including music critics!), cannot fail to smile through it all until the final “A Good Boy” provides a lesson that we can only wish many of our present-day elders/leaders would learn. Just imagine: I never said an ugly word as mantra!
It must be said that the success of this project (apart from the most appropriate repertoire chosen), is due to the consummate artistry of Duncan and Switzer. The obvious empathy, understanding and skills of both marvellously transcends the texts and their meanings for those of any age.
Darius Milhaud’s set is a case in point. “When and Why” truly plays with its words and lays the seeds for “greedy hand”. After a busy opening, “Defamation” explores childhood fears, apparent dirtiness (aren’t children “allowed”?) and a recurrence of “greedy” (surely greedy for life!). All listeners can feel the flowing water in “Paper Boats”, scent the shiuli flowers and—after some temporary darkness—are rescued by the “fairies of sleep”. There’s an image for all ages. “Sympathy,” understandably, ranges from anger to wistfulness, whether a puppy or child. The concluding “The Gift” effuses love and a heartbreaking notion of “us”—couldn’t be said, performed, or felt better.
Next up, a covey of miniatures from a variety of composers and poets is offered.
“Fancy” indeed is Poulenc’s setting of Shakespeare’s whimsical text. There is a wonderful sense of roll and feel from the protagonists and the composer: cheers to more Ding, dong, bell.
It falls to the vivid imagination of Saint-Saëns to provide settings from three different poets who have in common the desire to speak truthfully about the joys and foibles of life. “Cherry-Farm Tree” (Horace Lennard) is a gently rollicking ode to rustic nature, marvellously leading to Polly the milkmaid moving up in life from reliable help to mistress of the manor. Decidedly darker is the much more brooding “’Tis Better So” (Frank Tannehill). With stoic inevitability permeating the atmosphere, a couple come to realize that both were wrong and must part for the good of all. Switzer ideally bookends the lovers’ lament with restrained, true understanding. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “A Voice by the Cedar Tree” is a study in contrasts, dealing with gay life, certain death and beauty—notably Maud with her exquisite face. Duncan is easily up to the task, switching gears, textures and tones at will. His take on “base” (bass, painted by the composer) is spot-on.
The next four songs zoom in on loves found and lost. From Massenet, we have the return of Maud (“Come into the Garden, Maud” Alfred Lord Tennyson). Here the “chorus” is invitingly busy interspersed with two episodes that feature the planet of Love (have we all not visited?) and a remarkable chat with a lily. Imagery abounds but key to it all is the musk of the rose, which is tellingly declaimed with honesty and passion.
Decidedly darker/ominous is the pair from Roussel. “A Farewell” (Ernest Clark Oliphant)—perhaps the most dramatic of the disc—overflows with dire acceptance of “the end” yet can’t help but cling to false hope. James Joyce’s “A Flower Given to my Daughter” lifts spirits marginally but still has the aura of a lament.
Ravel’s “Chanson écossaise” looks to the magic of Robert Burns to offer three stanzas of natural beauty and promise only to find another rose stolen; its thorn a bitter legacy.
A trio of selections from Gounod are, understandably, more operatic. The first three focus on maidens of varying persuasions; the last two bid goodnight to young and old.
“If Thou Art Sleeping, Maiden” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), with its appropriately busy accompaniment, is a lover’s call to escape: And we must away. The maiden in “Beware” (also Longfellow) is cut from a much different cloth: Trust her not/ She is fooling thee! Caveat emptor of the romantic variety—so at one with my recent deep dive into The Arabian Nights! “Maid of Athens,” replete with some lines in Greek, penned by Lord Byron, begins with a confident, moving forward tone, thanks to Switzer. Both artists then combine their compelling legato to add honesty and verisimilitude to every phrase.
With a childlike undercurrent (less is always more), “Sweet Baby, Sleep” (George Wither) is a lullaby for the ages, sure to put even the most cantankerous child into the realm of dreamland. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Good Night” equally fulfills its intended function for the older generations.
A return to Milhaud concludes this remarkable assemblage—both poems from Rabindranath Tagore. The rich warm tone of “Love, my Heart Longs Day and Night” is compelling from the first measure. Duncan bares his soul along with the rest of the artistic trust, notably plunder my dreams. “Peace my Heart”, feeling like a prayer, is more apt now than ever before. Milhaud’s harmonic shifts add much to the effect as does the irony of and say your last word in silence.
Overall it’s an album whose premise has more than been fulfilled.
Just one quibble: please give us all the texts in the booklet. Who wants to “listen along” to this remarkable art in the uncaring domain of “www”? JWR