Sunday 14 April 2013

CD Review - The Heart that Flutters - Lawrence Brownlee

This recital disc from American tenor Lawrence Brownlee and pianist Iain Burnside, is from the first batch of discs in the new collaboration between Rosenblatt Recitals and Opus Arte. The disc mixes items from Brownlee's two Rosenblatt Recitals (May 2010 at St John's Smith Square and September 2012 at Wigmore Hall) with items recorded in the studio. The result is an attractively eclectic mix including  Spirituals, arias from Rossini's Il Turco in Italia and Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment, songs by Henri Duparc and Ben Moore and Alberto Ginastera's Cinco canciones populares argentinas, but is perhaps notable for the live recording of Franz Liszt's Three Petrarch Sonnets. These have been rather absent from the catalogue in their proper tenor version and it is pleasing to have a newly recommendable version.

Brownlee and Burnside open with with an arrangement of Deep River made by H.T Burleigh. Burleigh is a notable figure for African-American musicians, a baritone who became a friend and associate of Dvorak and composed many songs himself. Brownlee sings Deep River beautifully, but this is very much converting the spiritual into art-song and you feel the arrangement rather saps the vitality of the original.

Next comes a group of Duparc songs, four of his best known melodies, Chanson Triste, Le Manoire de Rosemonde, Extase and Phidyle. Though these are finely sung, I confess to having something of a problem with them. First, I have a sneaking preference for having them sung by a female voice, but more important is the sound of Brownlee's voice. His rich, dark tones with their warm vibrato are ideal for Italian opera but I would like something a little more lyrically relaxed and less intense in these melodies.  That said, Brownlee's performances are elegantly expressive and he is finely supported by Burnside's accompaniment.

They follow this with a live recording of Franz Liszt's Three Petrarch Sonnets (Tre Sonnetti di Petrarca). Liszt wrote the piece in 1843-45 and are the result of his enthusiasm for all things Italian during his travels in Italy. In particular they show Liszt engaging with opera in the style of Bellini. The three movements are each cast in the form of an operatic aria, with Bellinian cantilena filtered through Liszt own genius. The songs were written for tenor and piano, though the record catalogue does not seem to have too many recordings of it at the moment. In particular Luciano Pavarotti's fine account has slipped out of the catalogue.

Brownlee is certainly chanelling Pavarotti in his performance, with his full-bodied, Italianate open sound and rich vibrato. He is beautifully flexible in the cantilena of the first movement, reaching a lovely passionate climax with a very full bodied top note.  The passion of his performance is always from within the music. In the second movement I was struck by the nicely flexible line, with a lovely expressive feeling of rubato. The passion, and open throated top notes, are balanced with some gorgeously hushed mezza-voce moments. Brownlee is delightfully seductive in the final movement, giving the music both shape and impetus, with some fine fluid playing from Burnside. That the work was recorded live is impressive in itself, but it also means that we gain something from the impulsive passion and immediacy apparent in the performance.

Next comes something of a bon bouche, albeit one of stunning virtuosity, Ah! mes amis from Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment, again recorded live. The aria, with its string of top C's, is something of a Brownlee speciality. As I have found when hearing him live, he sounds more relaxed when singing operatic arias even ones as bravura as this one. And he certainly sounds as if he's having fun here, and his tone is rather more relaxed and on the earlier tracks. The top C's are, of course, amazing.

Ben Moore (born 1960) is an American composer whose work stretches from art songs and opera to cabaret and music theatre. Here Brownlee sings four of Moore's songs, two setting texts by James Joyce and two setting texts by W.B. Yeats. I Would in that Sweet Bosom Be sets Joyce, it is a romantic song which is lyrically melodic and highly approachable. Brownlee gives a relaxed performance with a lovely mezza-voce at the end. The Cloak, The Boat and The Shoes sets W.B.Yeats is rather a poignant piece,  though I thought perhaps Brownlee could have made more of the words. Here, as in all the Moore songs, Brownlee sings with lyric tone more noticeably relaxed than in some of the other items on the disc. This Heart that Flutters is the second Joyce lyric, a lovely song given a performance with a nice sense of line by Brownlee. Finally the second W.B.Yeats setting, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. This is a romantic song, with a big, memorable tune, which Brownlee clearly enjoys. Unfortunately it is just not the sort of quasi-Broadway ballad that I want to hear with these poignant words.

The last live item is another operatic one, Tu econdo il mio disegno from Rossini's Il turco in Italia. After a dramatic accompagnato, we get a brilliantly elaborate aria which Brownlee sings with superb fluency, bringing some lovely colours to the voiced. Again he sounds as if he is enjoying himself.

Argentinian composer Albert Ginastera's Cino cancines populares argentinas were written in 1943 before Ginastera made his first visit to the USA when he studied with Aaron Copland. The songs mix traditional styles of Argentinian folk-music with the composer's own folk-based idioms. Chacarera is based on a dance-form, brilliantly fast with Brownlee's delivery full of nervous energy and high speed patter lyrics. Triste, a song of unrequited love, starts with a lovely delicate piano introduction followed by a thoughtfully lyrical sweet lament. Another dance-based song, Zumba, has nice movement in the piano with a lovely lyrical melody above. Arrorro is a lullaby, with a delicate piano introduction leading to a hushed song. Quite slow and mesmerising, Brownlee is beautifully haunting with perhaps something a little disturbing creeping into the accompaniment. Finally another highly rhythmic dance number, Gato, with Brownlee almost dazzling in his delivery of the patter-like words.

The final song is another H.T. Burleigh spiritual arrangement, Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, beautifully song with an elegant legato, if you like your spirituals sung that way.

Iain Burnside provides brilliant support throughout, and gets a chance to shine in the Liszt and the Ginastera. The booklet includes full text and translations with short articles about the songs and about the artists.

This is perhaps the most disparate of the three Rosenblatt Recital discs just issued (see my reviews of the discs from Ailyn Perez and from Anthony Michaels-Moore). Though it does not quite cohere into a whole, there are undoubtedly some stunning things on the disc. The way Brownlee tosses off the Donizetti and Rossini certainly made me wish for more. But what makes this disc highly desirable is the account Liszt's Three Petrarch Sonnets, sung with style and intelligence by one of the most exciting lyric tenors around at the moment.

The Heart that Flutters
Spiritual, arr. H.T. Burleigh (1866 - 1949) - Deep River [2.17] (1)
Henri Duparc (1848 - 1933) - Chanson Triste (1868) [3.22] (1)
Henri Duparc (1848 - 1933) - Le Manoir de Rosemonde (1879) [2.42] (1)
Henri Duparc (1848 - 1933) - Extase (1874) [3.23] (1)
Henri Duparc (1848 - 1933) - Phidyle (1882) [5.32] (1)
Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886) - Three Petrarch Sonnets (1843-45) [18.56] (2)
Gaetano Donizetti (1797 - 1848) - Ah! mes amis ... Pour mon ame (1840) [3.45] (2)
Ben Moore (born 1960) - I Would in that Sweet Bosom be [2.24] (1)
Ben Moore (born 1960) - The Cloak, the Boat and the Shoes [2.19] (1)
Ben Moore (born 1960) - This Heart That Flutters [2.30] (1)
Ben Moore (born 1960) - The Lake Isle of Innisfree [4.10] (1)
Gioachino Rossini (1792 - 1868) - Tu seconda il mio disegno (1814) [6.29] (3)
Alberto Ginastera (1916 - 1983) - Cinco canciones populares argentinas (1943) [10.12] (1)
Spiritual, arr. H.T. Burleigh (1866 - 1949) - Sometimes I feel like a motherless child [2.27] (1)

Recorded (1) 19-22 September 2012, All Saints, East Finchley London
(2) live, 25 May 2010, St John's Smith Square
(3) live, 24 September 2012, Wigmore Hall


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