Wednesday 3 March 2021

Ashley Riches and Joseph Middleton's delightfully wide-ranging recital, A Musical Zoo on Chandos

Musical Zoo: Schubert, Schumann,Wolf, Brhams, Strauss, Faure, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, John Ireland, Herbert Howells, Samuel Barber, Vernon Duke, Britten; Ashley Riches, Jospeh Middleton; Chandos
A Musical Zoo
: Schubert, Schumann,Wolf, Brahms, Strauss, Faure, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, John Ireland, Herbert Howells, Samuel Barber, Vernon Duke, Britten; Ashley Riches, Jospeh Middleton; Chandos

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 March 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A magical and wide-ranging selection of animal songs in vivid, engaging and stylish performances

This delightful disc on Chandos from bass-baritone Ashley Riches and pianist Joseph Middleton takes animals as its inspiration. But the charm of the disc, A Musical Zoo, is the way the performers have cast their net widely so that we have songs by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Faure, Ravel, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, John Ireland, Herbert Howells, Samuel Barber and ending with Vernon Duke's settings of Ogden Nash. The recording is a co-production with BBC Radio 3; Ashley Riches was a BBC New Generation Artist from 2016 to 2018.

We begin with a delightful pair of Schubert songs, a bubbling trout and dancing birds, but these are followed by something far darker, Schumann's Die Löwenbraut, the powerful setting of Adelbert von Chamisso's curious tale with his overtones of sexual discovery. Riches starts the Schumann seductively, 'now once upon a time', but when we get to nub of the story both Riches and Middleton really let rip, thrillingly bringing out the drama. 

Hugo Wolf's Der Rattenfänger sets a Goethe text about the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and Wolf's setting manages to include the delightful suggestions of the piper's magic as well as vivid drama. Again the two performers bring out the ultimate in story telling here and sound as if they are having great fun doing it. Brahms' Nightingale brings us more back to earth, less a description of the bird than an evocation of its song on the poet. Richard Strauss' The Thrush was new to me, and here Strauss is Messiaen-like in his evocation of the bird song in the piano introduction. That the song itself is relatively conventional can be excused, the composer was all of 13 when he wrote it!

From here we move to France, and with the move Riches demonstrates one of the virtues of this set, the way he seems comfortable in a variety of song styles and languages.

His French production and the stylish way he sings Faure's delightful tale of The Butterfly and the Flower make the piece a charming delight. It is a light piece, almost music-hall in style, and both performers bring a deftly light touch to it. We follow this with something rather more meaty, Ravel's Histoires Naturelles based on texts by Jules Renard. We begin with a vividly sketched, self-absorbed peacock, and the trick with this is the way music and text align, and the two performers make them feel very natural, whilst we can appreciate Riches' seeming delight in the sheer story telling. And the ending of the song is touching too. The cricket is all delicate charm, with some beautiful detailing in the piano. For the swan, we again get lovely piano textures with Riches gliding beautifully over them to create something evocative. The kingfisher is beautifully seductive, full of magical textures, but we end in a more vividly violent style with the guinea fowl.

Mussorgsky's well-known Song of the Flea is the next animal to make an appearance. Riches' emulation of the Russian style is just as entrancing as his French style, and he and Middleton make a fine tour-de-force of the song. Shostakovich's cockroach (one of the composer's last vocal works) is far edgier and darker. It is a curious tale, and Shostakovich brings dark humour to it. Hearing Riches and Middleton performing the song, you rather wished we could have continued with more Shostakovich. Another disc perhaps!

We follow the Russian group by songs setting English. First John Ireland and his three ravens, an altogether calmer world with its hints of folk-song, beautifully evoked here with Riches combining superb diction with lovely musical line. Next comes Herbert Howell's nightingale in King David in a finely rapturous performance. Finally in this group, The Monk and his Cat from Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs. There is something delightfully tongue-in-cheek about the song, and Barber seems to be intriguingly hinting at 20th century cabaret in his recreation of the medieval Irish monk and his cat. The performers give the song a light touch, delighting in its magic.

The final set is Vernon Duke's Ogden Nash's Musical Zoo from 1947. Here we have twenty tiny settings of Nash's wry verse, no song longer than it need be. Riches' versatility shows here with his use of an American accent, and the way he and Middleton point Nash's distinctive verse. Duke and Nash would collaborate on a number of musical shows, so cabaret and the stage are never far away here.

Almost as an encore, we finish with Benjamin Britten's The Crocodile. It is one of his arrangements of traditional songs, this one dating from 1941 when he and Peter Pears were in America, and the song wasn't published in Britten's lifetime. Britten's arrangement turns the song into a rattling good yarn, which both Riches and Middleton perform with relish.

There's only one thing missing from the disc, Marriott Edgar's monologue, The Lion and Albert (with piano accompaniment by Edgar), as made famous by Stanley Holloway [YouTube], perhaps for the follow-up disc!

Ashley Riches' cat, Leonora Rubenstein (Photo courtesy of Ashley Riches)
Ashley Riches' cat, Leonora Rubenstein (Photo courtesy of Ashley Riches)

The booklet comes with an admirable article by Mervyn Cooke, as well as one from Riches who introduces us to his cat Leonora Rubenstein, and there are even pictures of the cat in the book, and Riches ends with the thoughtful comment 'Animals, like music, remind us of the part of us which is most alive, most free. Animals are the music of life.'.

This is a recording which wears its learning lightly, we can sit back and enjoy the engaging performances and vivid storytelling, or we can dig deeper and appreciate the work that has gone into the artists' sheer versatility at bringing all these different styles and eras to life.

Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) - Die Forelle
Franz Schubert - Die Vögel
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) - Die Löwenbraut
Hugo Wolf (1860 – 1903) - Der Rattenfänger
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) - An die Nachtigall
Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) - Die Drossel
Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924) - Le Papillon et la fleur
Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) - Histoires naturelles
Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881) - Mephistopheles’s Song of the Flea in Auerbach’s Tavern
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) - Once there lived a cockroach
John Ireland (1879 – 1962) - The Three Ravens
Herbert Howells (1892 – 1983) - King David
Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981) - The Monk and His Cat
Vernon Duke (1903 – 1969) - Ogden Nash’s Musical Zoo
Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) - The Crocodile
Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk; 29 June – 1 July 2020
CHANDOS CHAN20184 1CD [75:13]

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