Monday 4 February 2013

CD Review - Shakespeare Songs, Nicky Spence and Malcolm Martineau

As You Like It: Shakespeare Songs - Nicky Spence (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano), Resonus Classics
Nicky Spence and Malcolm Martineau's new recital disc, As You Like It: Shakespeare Songs has been released on the Resonus Classics label, a digital only label which means that the disc is only available for download. The disc contains a delightfully eclectic selection of settings of Shakespeare in English and in translation, mixing classic repertoire with lesser known pieces and the first recording of Alex Woolf's Three Tempestuous Tunes, all characterised by the great care, attention and musicality of both performers.

The disc opens with an engaging performance Schubert's Horch, horch die Lerch, August Wilhelm Schegel's version of Hark, hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings from Cymbeline. Spence has a lovely lyric voice, with a particularly free upper voice when lightly touching the notes. 

He follows Schubert with Roger Quilter's Three Shakespeare Songs, written in 1905, the first and most popular of Quilter's 17 Shakespeare settings. In all three I was conscious of the great lyrical beauty of Spence's voice, but he does not simply coast along on that basis. A great deal of care and intelligence has gone into the performances, with beautiful attention to both words and the phrasing of the vocal line. A performance of both sense and sensibility.  In the second song, O mistress mine there were hints of unevenness in the vocal line, but his attention to the words won the day. In the final song, Blow, blow thou winter wind he seemed uncertain what pronunciation to use, pronouncing winter wind to rhyme with unkind, but not doing the same with waters warp and sharp. This song received a big boned performance with Spence pushing his voice a little too much at the end.

Next an opportunity to compare and contrast, Fancy by Francis Poulenc and Fancie by Benjamin Britten, both setting the same text from The Merchant of Venice. Britten's setting is quick with Spence giving the words a nervous intensity, whereas in Poulenc's slower tempo he revels in the lyric beauty, giving a touchingly evocative performance.

Ernest Chausson's Trois Chansons de Shakespeare set loose French adaptations of Shakespeare by Maurice Bouchor. All three display a rather dark 19th century sensibility when it comes to Shakespeare.  Chanson de clown based on Twelfth Night is deep, dark and sombre with Spence displaying some lovely French. The second, Chanson d'amour based on Measure for Measure, develops from a similar sombre gloom into passionate intensity. The last, Chanson D'Ophelie is Ophelias familiar song from Hamlet rendered bleakly but with lovely tone by Spence.

Schubert's An Sylvia is of course familiar, Spence and Martineau render it charmingly with Spence giving due weight to the words. 

The two earliest songs on the disc span the centuries, because Purcell's If music be the food of love and An Epithalamium are given in their arrangements by Michael Tippett and Walter Bergman. Spence thins his voice down beautifully for both, this is very much Purcell as art song. And why not?

More Tippett this time, his own compositions, Songs for Ariel, taken from his incidental music to The Tempest which was performed at the Old Vic in 1962. Come unto these yellow sands is well done, complete with the barking dog effects, but I wanted a rather more brilliant tone to the voice. In Full Fathom Five Spence sings with dark veiled tone, highly evocative, and his performance hints at links with earlier English art songs. Where the bee sucks gets all the insouciance it needs, with some lovely clear piano textures.

The next group are all by well known classical and romantic composers. Haydn's She never told her love which sets words from Twelfth Night Spence shows a nice line and a care for the words. By contrast in Schubert's Trinklied (a translation by Ferdinand von Mayerhofer from Antony and Cleopatra) Spence is bright, breezy and lusty. And Hugo Wolf's Lied des transterierten Zettel from A Midsummer Nights Dream is simply hilarious. Spence sings Bottom's song in strong tones, complete with donkey impressions, but overall keeps a light touch on the song.

Geoffrey Bush's It was a lover and his lass (from As you like it) has a remarkably busy vocal line, but Bush gives a nice swing to the lively song and both Spence and Martineau seem to delight in it. 

Alex Woolf is a young composer (he was born in 1995) who won several prizes including Cambridge Young Composer of the Year. His Three Tempestuous Songs  are all from The Tempest. All three have hints of jazz in them, with some nice, witty and complex rhythms in the piano. The vocal line is a little more declamatory but with a good feeling for the text. Spence and Martineau give fine performances of them. 

They perform just two songs from Dominick Argento's Six Elizabethan Songs, Winter from Love's Labours Lost and Dirge from Twelfth Night. The first is brilliant, with Spence highly dexterous in the fast words. The second is haunted and bleak, with hardly any piano, quite magical. Melvyn Horder's Under the Greenwood Tree is another song which combines rather jazzy rhythms with a more conventional melodic line, to rather charming effect.

The three John Dankworth songs on the disc were all written for Cleo Laine to sing in a programme of Shakespeare settings. Here we come to real jazz and blues, rather than composers hinting at it in the piano part. Spence's voice is different from Cleo Laines, but he shows that a lyric tenor is no hindrance in singing jazz styled music. In the setting of the sonnet Shall I compare the to a summer's day Spence uses a confiding tone and gives Dankworth's lovely subtle blues a relaxed feel with due weight on the words. The Complete Works is a complete delight, simply a list of all of Shakespeare's works. Finally the story of Macbeth re-told in Dunsinane blues. Here I noticed a different approach to Cleo Laine, but once I'd got over the shock I found that I enjoyed Spence's version just as much.

Finally, another little charmer. Peter Dickinson's Hark hark the Lark from Schubert in blue, bluesy versions of songs inspired by Schubert's settings. 

The disc is released in a variety of formats from MP3 to 24-bit studio audio quality. The CD booklet includes excellent notes and full texts and translations. There is a promo video for the disc on YouTube.

This is a delightful disc, with Spence showing both his versatility and his care with both music and with text. His performance is constantly engaging. He is well supported by Malcolm Martineau who shows himself entirely at ease in a wide variety of styles and supports Spence quite brilliantly.

As you like it: Shakespeare Songs

Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) - Horch, horch, die Lerch [1.34]
Roger Quilter (1877 - 1953) - Three Shakespeare Songs
  • 1 - Come away death [2.37]
  • 2 - O mistress mine [1.24]
  • 3 - Blow, blow, thou winter wind [2.20]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Fancie [0:76]
Francis Poulenc (1899 - 1963) - Fancy [1.50]
Ernest Chausson (1855 - 1899) - Trois chansons de Shakespeare, Op. 28
  • 1 - Chanson de clown [3.29]
  • 2 - Chanson d'amour [2.11]
  • 3 - Chanson d'Ophelie [2.03]
Franz Schubert  - An Sylvia [2.44]
Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695), arr. Tippett/Bergmann - If music by the food of love [2.03]
Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695), arr. Tippett/Bergmann - An Epithalamium [2.51]
Michael Tippett (1905 - 1998) - Songs for Ariel
  • 1 - Come unto these yellow sands [1.48]
  • 2 - Full fathom five [1.45]
  • 3 - Where the bee sucks [1.17]
Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809) - She never told her love [3.21]
Franz Schubert - Trinklied [0:45]
Hugo Wolf (1860 - 1903) - Lied des transferierten Zettel [0:56]
Geoffrey Bush (1920 - 1988) - It was a lover and his lass [1.52]
Alex Woolf (born 1995) - Thre Tempestuous Tunes (2012)
  • 1 - This is a very scurvy tune [2.08]
  • 2 - Flout'em and scout'em [0.35]
  • 3 - No more dams I'll make for fish [1.10]
Dominick Argento (born 1927) - Winter (from Six Elizabethan Songs) [1.34]
Dominick Argento (born 1927) - Dirge (from Six Elizabethan Songs) [3.54]
Mervyn Horder (1910 - 1998) - Under the Greenwood Tree [1.22]
John Dankworth (1927 - 2010) - Shall I compare thee [2.24]
John Dankworth - The Compleat Works [1.20]
John Dankworth - Dunsinane Blues [2.56]
Peter Dickinson (born 1934) - Hark, hark, the lark [1.55]

Nicky Spence (tenor)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Recorded in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Resonus Classics RES10116 Download only

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