TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. This year marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Before time runs out on the international quadricentennial celebration, our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, is going to tell us about a recent CD that celebrates Shakespeare in words and music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MENDELSSOHN'S "NO. 1 SCHERZO")
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: In Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," for the lovesick Duke Orsino, music is the food of love. He offers to pay the clown Feste for singing a sad but consoling love song. There's for thy pains, he says. But the clown demurs. No pain, sir. I take pleasure in singing. It's one of my favorite moments in Shakespeare, and it leapt to mind while I was listening to a new recording called "Shakespeare In Music And Words" released in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.
One disk of this two-CD set is devoted to music inspired by Shakespeare and one disc to actors reading Shakespeare. One of the loveliest tracks is the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel singing "Come Away Death," the very song that Feste takes pleasure in singing. The luscious musical setting is by the British composer Gerald Finzi, who died in 1956 at the age of 55.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET US GARLANDS BRING OP.18: COME AWAY, COME AWAY, DEATH")
BRYN TERFEL: (Singing) Come away, come away, death, and in sad cypress let me be laid. Fly away, fly away, breath. I am slain by a fair, cruel maid.
SCHWARTZ: The most popular sources of music in this collection are "Romeo And Juliet" and "Midsummer Night's Dream." Frankly, I could live without an organ version of Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" wedding march or the inevitable love theme excerpted from Tchaikovsky's "Romeo And Juliet, Fantasy Overture." The real gems here are the more unusual choices, including some that are not slavishly attached to Shakespeare.
Take the nocturne from Berlioz's "Beatrice Et Benedict," his opera based on "Much Ado About Nothing." It's a rapturous hymn to the harmonies of the night sung by the ingenue hero and her maid after they've conspired to trick Beatrice into falling in love with Benedick. But both the words and the music are purely Berlioz's invention. The singers here are soprano April Cantelo and mezzo-soprano Heather Watts. Colin Davis is the sympathetic conductor.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ACT 1: VOUS SOUPIREZ, MADAME?... NUIT PAISIBLE ET SEREINE!")
APRIL CANTELO AND HELEN WATTS: (Singing in French).
SCHWARTZ: Maybe no composer loved Shakespeare more than Giuseppe Verdi. And "Shakespeare In Music And Words" gives us Renee Fleming singing Desdemona's "Ave Maria" from Othello, although The Willow Song would have been more directly Shakespearian. There's also a powerful chorus from Verdi's Macbeth and a comic scene from Falstaff, again with Bryn Terfel. Too bad no translations are included to help clarify what's happening in this hilarious scene from Verdi's last masterpiece.
The second disc is devoted more directly to Shakespeare. An assortment of eminent British actors read speeches, scenes from plays and several of the better-known sonnets, all excerpted from a new hundred-disc complete Shakespeare set. We hear a lot of good diction and plummy vocalizing. Geraldine McEwan and Christopher Plummer are better than that as Beatrice and Benedick.
But mostly, the women are less hammy than the men. Peggy Ashcroft as Kate, Dorothy Tutin as an impetuous Juliet, Vanessa Redgrave charming us in the epilogue to "As You Like It." My particular favorite, though, is Max Adrian, whose voice may sound familiar from the legendary original-cast album of Leonard Bernstein's Candide. He gives one of the most convincing readings I've ever heard of Jaques's famous seven-ages-of-man monologue. Here are the first five ages.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPOKEN WORD RECORDING, "ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE")
MAX ADRIAN: (Reading) All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse's arms, then the whining school boy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school. And then the lover - sighing like furnace with a woeful ballad made to his mistress' eyebrow, then a soldier full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon's mouth.
SCHWARTZ: Of course, any excuse to honor Shakespeare is a good one. And if we didn't celebrate this major anniversary of his death, we'd have to wait 48 more years until his 500th birthday.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA creative-writing program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He reviewed "Shakespeare In Music And Words," a two-CD set on the Argo label.
(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON COMPOSITION, "AULD LANG SYNE")
GROSS: Well, that's our final edition of FRESH AIR for 2016. It's been quite a year. Thanks for listening to us. And I hope you'll let us share 2017 with you. The guests we'll have on the first week of the new year include Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Broadway sensation "Hamilton," and Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of the new movie musical "La La Land." All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a happy, healthy and fulfilling new year.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON COMPOSITION, "AULD LANG SYNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.