Winter Words, the debut solo album by American tenor Nicholas Phan, is a total pleasure on all fronts. The nearly 33-year-old Phan's career has been heating up on the opera stage — he'll be spending much of this coming spring touring Handel's Ariodante across Europe with Joyce DiDonato, Il Complesso Barocco and conductor Alan Curtis. This program, with sensitive and lyrical accompaniment provided by Myra Huang, proves Phan to be a powerful force in recital as well.
It's a very smartly planned first album. Rather than traipsing through well-established calling-card repertoire, Phan showcases lesser-known music by Benjamin Britten, including his stellar Winter Words, a 1953 setting of eight Thomas Hardy poems; Seven Sonnets Of Michelangelo from 1940 (the first work Britten wrote exclusively for his partner, Peter Pears) and six very charming folk song arrangements.
There's often a terrible bleakness in Hardy's texts, a feeling familiar to anyone who's read Jude the Obscure and his other novels, but the gloom is tempered by some funny moments, as in the song "Wagtail And Baby." Phan's abundant gifts as a storyteller shine in the wistful tale "At The Railway Station, Upway," which imagines a chance encounter between a prisoner, a watchful constable and a small boy begging with a violin (an instrument evoked vividly by Huang):
Phan delivers the texts directly with affectless diction, powerful clarity and gorgeous tone. There's also a very appealing muscularity to his sound, even when he is reaching into the stratosphere, such as in Sonnetto XXX of the Michelangelo Sonnets.
Winter Words is one of the best recitals I've heard this year — if I'd gotten to it earlier in the season it would probably have made my list of 2011 favorites — and it marks Phan's entry as an artist who must be heard.