Tuesday 4 August 2020

In the Tavern of Sweet Songs

David Lewiston Sharpe In the Tavern of Sweet Songs; Lucy Knight, Jeff Stewart, Nigel Foster; Southway Recordings
David Lewiston Sharpe In the Tavern of Sweet Songs; Lucy Knight, Jeff Stewart, Nigel Foster; Southway Recordings

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 August 2020 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A new song cycle setting Edward Fitzgerald's Miltonic rendering of mystical Sufi verse

Nūr ad-Dīn 'Abd ar-Rahmān Jāmī (1414-1492), usually known simply as Jami, was a Persian poet known as a writer of mystical Sufi literature, and his cycle of seven poems, Haft Awrang is considered one of the foundational texts of Persian literature. One of the poems, Salámán and Absál, tells the story of the carnal love of the Greek prince Salaman for his nurse Absal. The work became known in the West thanks to the translation by Edward Fitzgerald (best known as the translator of Omar Khayyam). Fitzgerald's translation of Salámán and Absál was published in 1856 and renders the Persian original into Miltonic verse.

It is from Fitzgerald's translation of Jāmī's Salámán and Absál, that the British composer David Lewiston Sharpe has selected seventeen poems to set for his song cycle In the Tavern of Sweet Songs. On this new disc from Southway Recordings, the cycle is given its premiere recording by soprano Lucy Knight, tenor Jeff Stewart and pianist Nigel Foster.

Lewiston Sharpe studied at the Guildhall School of Music, King's College, London and the Royal Academy of Music, and his extensive output (over 100 works) ranges from art song to symphonies and chamber works. His cycle Litanies des petite metiers de Paris was commissioned by Nigel Foster for the 2015 London Song Festival and premiered there by soprano Lucy Knight, baritone Julien van Mellaerts and Nigel Foster, piano.

Describing this new song cycle, Lewiston Sharpe refers to the tavern in Sufi imagery being symbolic of the world, a place in which the experiential 'wine' of spiritual intoxication is imbibed, and the 'sweet songs' represent the elevating music that is a pathway to the divine, sung by a wandering Sufi mystic singing his ecstatic songs of spiritual love. So, though the immediate references might seem worldly, there is a strong sense of the mystical and the metaphysical.

That said, the verse of Edward Fitzgerald is something of an acquired taste, and Fitzgerald's redolent Miltonic English verse can sometimes seem a bit overblown to modern ears. As ever with this style of versification, I cannot help but wonder what a literal rendering of the original might be like. Take lines from the fifth song:

'From the Hunting-ground of Darkness
Down a musky Fawn of China
Brought - a Boy - who, when the Tender
Shoot of Passion in him planted
Found sufficient Soil and Sap,'

I have always found classical Persian literature quite fascinating (particularly because a significant amount uses homo-erotic imagery), but have to confess that for me, as a composer, Fitzgerald's verse is rather off-putting. And simply as a reader, I find the verse a little to complex for its own good. But Lewiston Sharpe seems to find it inspiring, and has written music which combines rhapsodic ecstasy with complexity. From the opening of the first song, we plunge straight in. A flowing piano line, mixing lyricism with chromatic complexity, leads to a similar vocal line. There is much to enjoy here, and cannot help but admire the way Lewiston Sharpe was grasped the complexity of Fitzgerald's verse and produced music which dares to approach the original's sense restless ecstasy.

The seventeen songs are shared between the two singers, taking it in turns, though I did rather wish for a duet at the end. The problem is that there are simply lots of notes, Lewiston Sharpe's music might be essentially tonal, but he takes no prisoners with his elaborately decorated vocal lines, and evocative webs of piano textures. The performance from pianist Nigel Foster is nothing short of heroic as he makes Lewiston Sharpe's busy textures flow with a beautiful naturalness.

Unfortunately the two singers do not manage to quite do the same, and the vocal lines can seem somewhat studied, arch even.  Soprano Lucy Knight works hard at bringing out an element of ecstatic mysticism, but frankly tenor Jeff Stewart sounds as if an heroic style of music might suit his voice better. You suspect that economics might have something to do with this, that the songs could have done with a little more bedding down, allowing the vocal lines to flow more naturally. These performances feel like a highly creditable first performance, but perhaps not quite as definitive as might have been hoped.

This is a substantial work, a few minutes short of an hour's music, and both composer and performers are to be credited with bringing it to disc. A work like this needs performing, and I hope that the disc tempts others into giving us it in its entirety, or exploring extracts.

David Lewiston Sharpe (born 1976) - In the Tavern of Sweet Songs
Lucy Knight (soprano)
Jeff Stewart (tenor)
Nigel Foster (piano)
Recorded at Red Gables Studios, Middlesex, 21-22 April 2016
Available from Amazon.

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