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Tyler Duncan’s new disc of English-language songs by French composers is a treasure trove of surprising and understated delights.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best, and so it proves here. Baritone Tyler Duncan has recorded an album of songs by French composers with one thing in common: they were all composed to English texts. The accompanying booklet makes the slightly sweeping statement that ‘the French tend to overlook the musical quality of languages, sometimes their own,’ but also highlights the French interest in English literature and its attraction for composers. Indeed, both Gounod and Saint-Saëns lived in England following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. (Gounod had a most bizarre time of it with his hostess, amateur soprano Georgina Weldon, who was obviously a sandwich short of a picnic: after their falling out she refused to return his possessions to France, eventually sending his score of Polyeucte with her name scrawled across each page and then suing him.)

Duncan performs songs by the aforementioned composers as well as by Massenet, Hahn, Roussel, Poulenc, Milhaud and Ravel. The songs are generally very finely crafted and don’t particularly betray their cultural blend. Poulenc sets Shakespeare’s ‘Tell me where is fancy bred’ from The Merchant of Venice and copes well with stretching the rhythms of the rhyming couplets in a natural fashion. Gounod seems particularly attuned to the stresses of the lines he sets and his songs have a delightful flow. Hahn sails through his challenge of setting Robert Louis Stevenson poems into Five Little Songs with an almost childlike glee that belies their fleet yet sophisticated charms.

Not every text was originally English. Milhaud’s Child Poems and Two Love Poems are set to texts by Rabindranath Tagore, ‘the Bard of Bengal’. Though the Bengali texts are translated into suitably poetic English, I doubt many singers would relish enunciating the sibilance of ‘And why fruits are secretly filled with sweet juice: When I bring sweet things to your greedy hands’. But Duncan is a hugely accomplished singer and appears unfazed by the challenge. His diction throughout is superb in its clarity. You can hear glimpses of his Canadian accent in his open vowel sounds, and only comes to grief once, in Ravel’s setting of Burns’s Chanson écossaise; the album booklet points out that ‘the challenge for the singer is to capture the Scottish brogue without veering into caricature’. Duncan achieves the latter by generally avoiding the former – he has the Scottish tapped ‘R’, but the vowels are more Transatlantic: uncovered and bright rather than set forward. Similarly, his pronunciation of the name Maud is nearer ‘Mard’ rather than ‘Mord’. The name crops up in two songs based on Tennyson’s poetry (offering an alternative Come into the garden, Maud) by Massenet.

I can promise you that Duncan never sings a line that is not clear and comprehensible, not least because he has what sounds like a natural knack of balancing a phrase. I’m sure that this in fact took much work and preparation with his excellent pianist, Erika Switzer, who deftly manages the mood of each song. Duncan’s voice is a light baritone, perfectly knit through top to bottom. He can achieve remarkable transparency of tone, especially at the top, by choice not necessity. His sense of phrasing is sophisticated, once again because he has the technical ability – listen to how he manages the last verse of Gounod’s Sweet Baby, Sleep! and takes lines in one breath across the 6/8 time. He also has a deftsense of rubato without mauling the legato, displayed well in Gounod’s setting of Byron’s Maid of Athens. An excellent album of understated pleasures.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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