Tucson Desert Song Festival 2017-18 Review: Phillippe Sly and John Charles Britton Deliver Mesmerizing Night of Schubert

(Credit: Adam Scotti)

On February 3, 2018, the Tucson Guitar Society and the University of Arizona Bolton Guitar Studies Program presented bass-baritone Philippe Sly and guitarist John Charles Britton in an all-Schubert recital. This was yet another part of the Tucson Desert Song Festival. At first, I wondered about Schubert with a guitar instead of a piano, or to be more historically informed a pianoforte. When the audience entered the 200-seat Holsclaw Hall, however, Sly informed us that the composer, who was not wealthy, could not always afford a pianoforte. Sometimes friends sang his songs with guitar accompaniment in his own time.

Sly and Britton performed seated and they invited the audience, whose places had not been strictly assigned, to think of themselves as attending an informal concert in Schubert’s home.

As with the previous recitals at the Song Festival, the program contained all the original words to the songs as well as translations, and the house lighting was strong enough to allow reading while the music was sung.

On to the Program

Sly and Britton began with “Alinde,” a late song to a poem by Johann Friedrich Rochlitz that tells the familiar story of waiting for a lover when time seems to move at a constantly buffering tempo. A nocturnal water song, its simple vocal line includes downward arpeggios answered by an echo. It’s Schubert and, of course, the melody is magnificent. Sly and Britton performed it with the limited dynamics of which the unamplified guitar is capable. I might have liked to hear Sly sing fortissimo, but that was not within the purview of this recital.

They followed it with the much earlier and much better known “Auf dem Wasser zu singen (To Sing on the Water).” Here, voice and guitar were the aural equivalent of shimmering sunlight on tiny waves. Schubert set Eduard von Bauernfeld’s German translation of William Shakespeare’s “To Silvia” as well as A. W. von Schlegel’s translation of the Bard’s “Serenade.” Sly and Britton separated these two songs of wonder and praise with the melancholy “Du Liebst mich nicht (You don’t love me).” They performed all three with vocal and instrumental colorings that brought out the deeper meanings of the words.

Writing in the early 1860s, Schubert biographer Heinrich Kreissle von Hellborn says the composer wrote his “Ständchen (Serenade)” in 1826 while he and a group of friends were dining at a restaurant in a suburb of Vienna. Sly and Britton gave an exquisite performance of this charming song. I imagine every woman listening wished her lover could sing its phrases half as gracefully.

With “Des Fischers Liebesglück (The Fisherman’s Luck in Love),” Sly and Britton again told a story of lovers enjoying the reflected sun and gentle breezes on the water. From an imaginary small, private boat, Sly and Britton told of sweet togetherness in the afternoon that lasted well into a glorious night. A favorite of Lieder recital patrons all over the world, “An die Musik (To Music),” spoke of the artists’ dedication to their art.

Since there was no intermission scheduled for this program, there was total continuity for its dramatic aspects. “Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden)” told of the sad passing of a little girl who will never grow up enough to know the love of a man or the ways of the world. Death speaks to her softly, however, and promises eternal rest in loving arms.

Sly and Britton followed it with the sine qua non of Schubert Lieder, “Du bist die Ruh (You are Peace).”  Hopefully, there can be peace for the living as well as for the dead. What a thrill it was to hear Sly’s high notes as the song’s lines flowed constantly upward.

Two Late Masterworks

Considered to be two of Schubert’s most important works, Schubert wrote “Die Schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Miller Girl)” and “Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey)” late in his short life. Perhaps Tucson will be lucky and Sly will return to sing all of one or both of these song cycles. On this evening, however, we had to be content with two songs from “Die Müllerin” songs and three from “Die Winterreise.”

“Die schöne Müllerin,” the earlier and lighter cycle, starts with the young man singing about the sounds and path of the rushing brook that urges him toward a mill and the family that runs it. In the second song, “Der Müller und der Bach (The Miller and the Brook),” Sly played the part of the miller and that of the personified brook. Britton’s part portrayed a great deal of emotion so he was an equal partner with the singer.

From “Die Winterreise” we heard “Der Lindenbaum (the Linden Tree),” “Der Greise Kopf (The Gray Head),” and “Der Leiermann (The Organ Grinder).” If he had stayed under the linden tree, the singer might have found peace, but that would never have been part of an important song cycle. The singer’s hair is gray, but only from frost. In those days many people did not live long enough to have gray hair.

For “The Organ Grinder,” Sly had an actual hurdy-gurdy that added to the sound. It helped him give a true picture of old age. Technology has passed the old man by and his friends have died. He is alone and forgotten. Sly and Britton left their audience with tears in their eyes but happiness in their hearts because they had heard a fine performance in a beautiful small hall.

After several curtain calls, Sly and Britton sang their single encore, Ravel’s first song of “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.” That made the listeners realize this French Canadian bass-baritone might also be invited to sing in his native language. With great tunes running around in our brains, we congratulated the artists in the lobby and began the trek back to Phoenix.

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