Nicholas Phan’s new solo album for Avie Records – Illuminations – drops this Friday, April 20, on the heels of his 2018 Grammy nomination for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album. On the new recording, the tenor reunites with his long-time recital partner, pianist Myra Huang, besides joining forces with the adventurous Brooklyn-based orchestral collective, The Knights, and the award-winning Telegraph Quartet. Comprising compositions by Benjamin Britten, Claude Debussy, and Gabriel Fauré, the album is a collection of vocal music inspired by the poetry of two scandalous figures of the Parisian Belle Époque, Paul Verlaine and his younger lover, Arthur Rimbaud.
Phan featured selections from the album in a recital with Huang at San Francisco’s historic Herbst Theater last week, crowning his four-year residency with San Francisco Performances. His upcoming performance highlights include appearances with the Orchestre d’Auvergne in orchestral song cycles by Britten and Gerald Finzi (May 24 & 25); a performance of the tenor’s own English Renaissance pastiche song cycle, A Painted Tale, at the Chautauqua Festival (July 23); his Cabrillo Music Festival debut in the West Coast premiere of Nico Muhly’s orchestral song cycle, Impossible Things (Aug 12); his return to the Los Angeles Philharmonic for Beethoven and Orff with Bramwell Tovey and Emmanuel Ax at the Hollywood Bowl (Aug 28 & 30); and his participation in ongoing Bernstein centenary celebrations. These see Phan headline Candide with the Toronto Symphony (April 26 & 28) and make two appearances at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony during its summer-long tribute to the great composer-conductor, first in Bernstein’s Songfest with Bramwell Tovey (Aug 4) and then in Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass under Herbert Blomstedt (July 21).
The poetry and salaciously intertwined lives of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud were the inspiration for the music of Illuminations, which boasts three important song cycles: Fauré’s La bonne chanson, Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées, and Britten’s Les Illuminations. All three works are settings of poems written just before and during the period in which Verlaine and Rimbaud scandalized all of Paris. Shortly after his marriage to the young Mathilde Mauté, Verlaine was sent poems written by Rimbaud, then aged 17. Upon reading them, Verlaine invited the young country-boy prodigy to Paris, initiating a tumultuous affair that would end with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the hand during a lovers’ quarrel that got out of hand one fateful night in Belgium.
“The story behind these songs has all the ingredients of what we would now know think of as great reality television: a broken marriage, sexual confusion, lovers’ quarrels – all fueled by rampant alcoholism. That it inspired some of the most revolutionary poetry and music of the last century is mind-boggling, and makes it all the more interesting to juxtapose these important song cycles with one other.”
For this recording, Phan has many collaborators in addition to his regular recital partner of 17 years, Myra Huang, whom Opera News considers “among the top accompanists of her generation.” For Fauré’s song cycle, they are joined by the Telegraph Quartet, winner of the 2016 Walter W. Naumburg Chamber Award. Phan reunites with another frequent collaborator, the pioneering orchestral collective The Knights, for Britten’s Les Illuminations.
Illuminations is Phan’s fifth solo album for Avie. His previous recordings for the label are a collection of German lieder titled Gods & Monsters, which was nominated for the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album; two celebrated collections of songs by Benjamin Britten; and A Painted Tale: a pastiche cycle of early English songs assembled by the tenor himself, which was chosen as one of the “Best Classical Albums of 2015” by the Chicago Tribune and named a Gramophone “Editor’s Choice.” He also appears with the Cleveland-based Baroque ensemble, Apollo’s Fire, on Avie’s recent release of Bach’s St. John Passion, which the New York Times calls “first-rate, a good choice, … notable, especially, for Nicholas Phan’s Evangelist.”