Sir Thomas Allen is an established star of great opera house around the world with a huge repertoire - with fifty roles at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden alone – who has now recorded something completely different for Champs Hill Records.
September Songs is a chance to explore songs he grew up with, loved then and loves still, but repertoire that’s not usually associated with him, the golden age of Broadway and Hollywood with its melodic beauty, lyrical inventiveness and emotional directness.
Allen has always hankered to ‘give it a go’ and to explore songs by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Kurt Weill. This period of music has so much allure and fascination for singers and musicians from all backgrounds, and he’s upfront about the criticisms that can so often be levelled against classical singers performing the Great American Songbook – that performers don’t give it the respect it deserves: “my feeling is that these sons are every bit the equal of the standard repertoire that we sing, and one must find the way of singing them… there’s an intimacy to so many of them that, in these simple versions for voice and piano, I know I have to try to capture.”
“There are one or two in particular that are little operatic scenas in themselves, and I love trying to find what that scene is – that’s my challenge.”
He is joined by soprano Lucy Crowe and his duo partner at the piano is Stephen Higgins.
One of the perhaps unanticipated effects of the internet has been a considerable expansion in the range of music that the average listener can listen to. Virtually any style, genre and sub-genre of music can be sampled online nowadays at the click of a mouse, or the casual flick of a finger. Usually there is no charge; the curious listener can experiment with financial impunity.
Have listeners’ tastes become broader and more open-minded as a consequence? Almost certainly they have. And yet certain hierarchies remain, perhaps particularly in the minds of older generations. Popular songs and melodies cannot possibly carry the same subtleties of nuance and emotion as classical Lieder, can they? And Broadway musicals: how can they possibly compete with the sophistication and profundity of opera?
Sir Thomas Allen’s choice of music for this programme of “September Songs” robustly challenges the assumption that classical compositions have a natural superiority compared to those which come from the popular end of the cultural spectrum.
Even the earliest song here, Jerome Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe Me”, has an emotional directness and sincerity that many more artfully constructed songs struggle to match. Written in 1914 at an early stage of Kern’s career, it was inserted into a musical called The Girl From Utah which had been successful in London, and was transferring to Broadway.
Kern’s brief in the five songs he contributed to the show - about an American who runs away to London to avoid marrying a wealthy, already married Mormon - was to replace nondescript numbers with tunes more palatable to New York audiences. He did that, and more: in “They Didn’t Believe Me”, Kern created what one commentator has called “the first modern Broadway ballad and a template for the twentieth century love song”.
Kern went on to write over 700 songs, including many which have become classics of the Great American Songbook. Two of these are included in this recital - “The Folks Who Live On The Hill”, from the 1937 film High, Wide, and Handsome; and “All The Things You Are”, from the 1939 musical Very Warm For May. Both have words by Oscar Hammerstein II, as does the poignant “Come Home” from the 1947 show Allegro, one of the great lyricist’s lesser known collaborations with Richard Rogers.
Like Kern, his younger contemporary George Gershwin had a classical training in music, and a similarly brilliant lyricist to work with - his brother Ira. The two combined in many projects, including the opera Porgy and Bess, and a string of Broadway musicals. Although many of these shows - the plots were often desperately flimsy - have long since been forgotten, songs from some of them have become enduring classics.
“Someone To Watch Over Me”, from the Prohibition-era musical Oh, Kay!, is one of these. Sung to a rag doll by the title character, the song’s side-slipping harmonies deftly suggest the vulnerability and longing underlying Gershwin’s sweet, seductive melody. This is no flighty, cotton-headed love song, as Ira’s lyric makes explicit: “He’s the big affair I cannot forget/Only man I ever think of with regret”.
“Our Love Is Here To Stay”, the last song Gershwin completed before his untimely death in July 1937, was first heard in the film The Goldwyn Follies. It was, though, Gene Kelly’s performance of the song in An American in Paris - a 1951 movie inspired by Gershwin’s music - that made it famous. The gentle, soothing lap of the melody bespeaks tender feelings for the singer’s beloved, and Ira’s lyric again skilfully combines clever wordplay with unmistakable deeper emotions: “In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble/They’re only made of clay, but our love is here to stay”.
The very opposite situation - a woman promised love, but abruptly abandoned by a sexually opportunistic man - is depicted in Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets”. Porter lived fast and lavishly, but was also highly educated, having studied English and music at Yale University, then music at Harvard University and with the composer Vincent d’Indy in Paris.
Porter’s sophistication and a degree of worldly cynicism come through sharply in “Miss Otis Regrets”, for which he wrote both lyrics and music. The jarring contrast between the deceptively insouciant music and the grisly tale of a jilted woman who shoots “the man who had led her so far astray” makes for macabre listening, and strikes a particularly unsettling note in this post-#MeToo moment.
Though still inevitable - “our love affair was too hot not to cool down”, the lyric runs - the death of love takes longer in Porter’s “One Of Those Things”, a song from the 1935 musical Jubilee. Again a telling fault-line exists in Porter’s music between the apparent suavity of the vocal line and the nervy foxtrot rhythm of the accompaniment.
Maybe it was just one of those things, the song insinuates - but memories have an afterlife of their own, and can haunt the person harbouring them. A similar tension, this time between words and music, marks “The Good Life”, a 1962 song by Sacha Distel and Jack Reardon. Here the easy-going undulations of the melody disguise the disillusion of the singer, and his rejection of an indulgent lifestyle that “lets you hide all the sadness you feel”.
Around the time Cole Porter was writing Jubilee Kurt Weill, an émigré from Nazi Germany, arrived in America. Weill was already well known in Europe for his classical pieces, and for his music theatre collaborations with the playwright Bertolt Brecht, which included The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. In America Weill absorbed a different musical vernacular, and began incorporating New World tastes and preoccupations into his music.
One result was the 1938 Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday, a political satire of Roosevelt’s New Deal America. The show’s most memorable number is “September Song”, sung by a character attempting to persuade a reluctant woman that time waits for no one, and they should marry. Weill drapes Maxwell Anderson’s wistful lyric with a gentle melancholy containing within it just a hint of nascent desperation.
“My Ship”, another of Weill’s most famous songs, came three laters later, in Lady in the Dark. The plot revolves around the psychoanalysis of an unhappy fashion magazine editor, and “My Ship” is a song she only gradually recalls from her childhood. The lyric is by none other than Ira Gershwin - he continued working with other composers for a decade after George’s death - who later described Weill’s music for “My Ship” as sounding “sweet and simple at times, mysterious and menacing at other”.
Any hint of darker sentiment is banished in Irving Berlin’s determinedly upbeat “You’re Just In Love”, where romantic befuddlement is depicted as an incurable if desirable afflcition: “There is nothing you can take/To relieve that pleasant ache”. Another song conceived as a comic duet, “I Remember It Well” from Lerner and Loewe’s 1973 Broadway show Gigi, riffs on the tricks memory can play even when reminiscences are a source of shared happiness.
Although the names of Ira Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein cast a daunting shadow, there were other great lyricists at work in twentieth century music theatre. One of the finest was Johnny Mercer, whose bourbon-soaked “One For The Road” - from the Harold Arlen-scored movie musical The Sky’s the Limit - found its definitive interpreter in Frank Sinatra. Mercer also provided the lyric for the moody, much-recorded “Autumn Leaves”, to music by the Hungarian-French composer Joseph Kosma.
The emotion that Mercer articulates in “Autumn Leaves” - the insistent tugging at the heart-strings which happens when good times end - is also the focus of “Some Other Time” from Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 musical On the Town, with words by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Throughout his career Bernstein mixed classical and popular styles in his music, an eclecticism perfectly illustrated in his 1988 song cycle Arias and Barcarolles, the last major work he completed. The touching “Greeting”, originally written to mark the birth of Bernstein’s son Alexander, is part of that cycle.
Does it matter that “Some Other Time” is more of a show tune, while “Greeting” seems more classical? Only if categories are all-important. At its best, the music of the American Broadway tradition rubs shoulders comfortably with its classical coequal, yielding nothing to it in terms of emotional immediacy and frank enjoyability.