A Gardener's World: Lieder and Mélodies from Alessandro Fisher and Anna Tilbrook

A Gardener's World: Lieder and Mélodies from Alessandro Fisher and Anna Tilbrook

Mixed composer recitals on a theme can be a bit hit and miss; but on the other hand can hold revelations, and can constitute eminently satisfying listening experiences. I came across several of the latter recently while writing an article on Spring in piano music for Pianist magazine (soon to be published); here's another that works, this time with the title A Gardener's World.

Alessandro Fisher is a fine singer, and this is his debut solo album. I had only heard him live once to my knowledge, in a concert performance of Mercadante's Il Proscritto in 2022 (review); he also sang Bastien on the Signum recording of Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne with Classical Opera under Ian Page. He clearly enjoys exploring lesser-known repertoire: he also features on a disc of Ethel Smyth (Fête Galante) and Liza Lehmann from Retrospect Opera. He also sang Conte Bandiera in Salieri's La schuola de’ gelosi for Bampton Opera. In April he will sing Schubert Die schöne Müllerin at Oxford Lieder Festival - that should be cherishable, on present evidence.

Subtitled “Flowers in Song,” A Gardener’s World explres repertoire as diverse as Schubert and Sibelius, from Clara Schumann to Eduard Toldrà, from Elgar to Carlos Giustavino. This is a live recording from Wigmore Hall on July 30, 2021 and appears in conjunction with the Borletti-Buitoni Trust (Fisher won a £20,000 BBT Fellowship in 2022). Here’s Fisher’s bio from their site:

A Choral Scholar at Clare College Cambridge, reading Modern and Medieval Languages, British tenor Alessandro Fisher (33) then studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He made his  Salzburg Festival debut as Lucano, L’Incoronazione di Poppea and has appeared at Garsington, Glyndebourne, The Grange Festival and London’s Royal Opera. In concert he has appeared with the BBC Orchestras and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, as well as in recital at Cheltenham, North Norfolk and Oxford Lieder Festivals and Wigmore Hall. Future engagements include Osvaldo in Mercadante’s Il Proscritto for Opera Rara, Mendelssohn Elias at the Badisches Staatstheater Klagenfurt, Monteverdi Vesperae della beate Vergine with La Nuova Musica, Vaughan Williams On Wenlock Edge with the BBC Philharmonic and Kurt Weill The Seven Deadly Sins with the London Symphony Orchestra. In addition to his BBT Fellowship, Fisher is an Associate Artist of The Mozartists and a former BBC New Generation Artist (2018-2021). He won First Prize at the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards.

The award and interest is entirely justified.

Fisher and Tilbrook bookend the recital with songs about how flowers “speak”: Schubert’s Die Blumensprache (D 519, ?1817) and Elgar’s 1872 song, The Language of Flowers (NB there is an encore after the Elgar!). Anna Tolbook sets up the atmosphere of expectation, of the excitement of the language of the art, immediately; Fisher is ardent and expectant. Listen to Tilbook”s harmonic sensitivity of touch and rubato in the linking passage between the first and second stanzas of the Schubert, and how both capture the flavour of each verse perfectly:

It is, one might suggest, a short step to the easy-flowing world of Mendelssohn, and so it is: Das erste Veilchen , Op. 19a/2, a song reflecting on the fleeting nature of the seasons. The first stanza cenebrates Spring's arrival via the first violet (incidentally, there is no Mozart Das Veilchen here); the second finds Spring passed, and Mendelssohn contrasts the two emotions perfectly. In fact, the two emotions are maximally contrasted here, Fisher's plaintive phrasing in the second complement by Tilbrook”s dolorous note repetition:

With the move to Robert Schumann, the music takes on an extra layer of depth in a song from the cycle Myrthen: “Die Lotosblume,” a song on first love and sexual awakening; linked to Clara Schumann”s Das Veilchen (1853), the effect is of a beautiful and complementary pair:

In this context, Robert’s “Meine Rose” (from Sechs Geschichte von N. Lenau und Requiem, Op. 90, 1850) acts as a late-Schumann love song, full of highest, perfumed beauty. Tilbrook captures the darkness here as well as the light, and Fisher is remarkable, not least in his variety of tone (how sweet his upper register);

Alessandro Fisher has a background in modern languages, so it is unsurprising he has no problems navigating a variety of them. We move from German to Swedish for Sibelius' set of Six Songs, Op. 88 (1917), properly Romantic in demeanour. The songs refer to the anemone, the first and most elusive of Spring flowers. Listen to the remarkable third song, “Vitsippan” (Wood Anemone), delicate and beautiful, and how the pureity of Fisher's voice is just perfect:

Sadness suffuses “Törnet” (The Thorn), its poignancy matched only by the setting sun of the final “Blommans öde” (The flower’s fate):

How light Fauré’s butterfly in “La papillon et la fleur” (The butterfly and the flower, a delightful 1861 setting of Victor Hugo). Fisher seems, too, a natural Fauré interpreter; and how beautiful is Tilbrook's lightening both of tone and touch. Incidentally, look out for a post on Lucas Debargue's latest release in due course: complete solo piano music of Fauré!. This song, by the way, is Fauré’s Op. 1/1:

Chausson and Poulenc make good bedfellows, Chausson’s active “Les papillons” seeing Gautier this time, leading to (the piano a hotbed of potentialities and expectation) cedes to Poulenc’s “Fleurs” from Fiançaille pour rire. The harmonies are fascinating, entirely of Poulenc, but with a layer of mysticism one might not always associate with this composer:

The name of Spanish-Catalan composer Eduard Toldrà, 1895-1962, was previously unknown to me (he also founded the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra); his music has been championed by the likes of Victoria de Los Angeles, Tereza Berganza and the great, great Conchita Supervia, though, and listening to these three songs, it is easy to hear why. The final song here, “Floreix l'amettler” (The Almond Tree Blossoms, 1929) is superbly outgoing. The virtuoso piano part is despatched with real aplomb by Tilbrook, and Fisher just goes for it:

Extending the Spanish feel are two songs by Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000). The first is utterly remarkable. I have heard a fair amount of Guastavino's music before, but La rosa y el sauce (The rose and the willow tree) is probably some of the most haunting music I have ever heard; and the performance is just hypnotic:

The song, “Cortadera, plumerito” (Little cutting little feather) from the cycle Flores Argentinas (1969) is the idea prolongation. Written 27 years later, there appear extra sophistications to the harmonies here:

Another name new to me is Muriel Herbert (1897-1984). Her 1927 song Violets and he 1916 song To Daffodils exudes ease of composition. Although very different in mood, they seem both to have an easy flow (they are easy on the ear, harmonically, too). Here’s Violets:

There is real freshness to the Elgar (The Language of Flowes) in this performance. Few passages give as much joy as Tilbrook's way with the playful opening to Haydn Wood's Love”s Garden of Roses (1914). Fisher teases the melodic line until we get the lovely legato of “Come to my garden of roses” in the third stanza:

Finally, the encore by the much-loved Flanders and Swann (Michael Flanders and Donald Swann): “Misalliance” from At the Drop of a Hat. Delicious! And that appearance of “Oh my darling Clementine” at the end ...

A marvellous recital, both in terms of programming and of execution. Congratulations to recording engineer Oscar Torres and Producer Peter Thresh for capturing the Wigmore acoustic so successfully.

This disc is a real triumph for all concerned, full of freshness, full of discovery.

The Amazon link is here: if you prefer to use that site directly, please be aware of a mis-spelling that might scupper your chances: they have called this disc “A Gardner’s (sic) World”.