Musicians from Marlboro, the touring ensemble from the Vermont chamber music gathering, are regular visitors to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, each concert bearing a few glimpses into the storied summer festival’s approach to its craft. Sometimes, though, the group offers something more. That was the case Sunday, when its latest iteration included Nicholas Phan, a tenor who, in a short time, has become one of the world’s most remarkable singers.
The reasons for his success were apparent during an incisive performance of “On Wenlock Edge,” Vaughan Williams’s song cycle for tenor, piano, and string quartet. Vaughan Williams chose six poems from A.E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad,” and while there is no explicit program behind his selection, the poems create a kind of extended meditation on time and impermanence. The composer’s settings honor both the straightforward rhythms of Housman’s poetry and the vast emotional terrain they convey.
One could admire, in Phan’s performance, the variety of shadings in his voice, the naturalness of his phrasing, and the evenness of his vocal range. But that was all secondary to the sheer intensity with which he inflected every word. It was there in the fragile, whispered opening of “From far, from eve and morning” and in the torrent of anguish in “Is my team ploughing” and “Bredon Hill.” Even when the mood lightened, there was no moment where you did not feel the sheer force of Phan’s projection.
He was, in an odd way, almost as impressive in a selection of five of Beethoven’s settings of Irish folk songs for voice and piano trio. These are not Beethoven’s most distinguished creations, and the rather banal texts suffer in comparison to Housman’s. But there was no less depth in Phan’s artistic investment, and he made the stories these songs told compelling and poignant. Lydia Brown was the masterful pianist in both works.
Framing the two vocal works were string quartets by Haydn and Beethoven, played by violinists Michelle Ross and Carmit Zori, violist Rebecca Albers, and cellist Alice Yoo. Haydn’s D-major Quartet (Op. 76 No. 5) got a deliberate reading that was marred by intonation problems and missed notes in the violins. Beethoven’s C-major “Razumovsky” Quartet (Op. 59, No. 3) fared better: While the first movement suffered from similar problems, the performance grew in confidence, and the daredevil finale, while not the last word in polish or power, made a satisfying close to the afternoon.
Musicians from Marlboro
At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Jan. 22David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.