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April 23 marked the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. The Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, the American singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, and the British multi-instrumentalist Fred Thomas have seized the day by releasing masterly tributes to the Bard’s sonnets and songs in particular and to great poetry in general.
Of the three albums, Thomas’ The Beguilers (F-IRE Recorded Music Ltd.) is the least Shakespearean, numbering only one Shakespeare lyric, “Take, O Take Those Lips Away” from Measure for Measure, among its dozen tracks. But as sung, like the other 11 songs, by the gossamer-voiced Ellie Rusbridge, it situates Shakespeare among the great love-song composers, a category to which his accomplishments as a dramatist and a poet can make people forget that he belongs.
The other poets whose verses Rusbridge sings include Emily Brontë, James Joyce, Walter Savage Landor, Francis Pilkington, Thomas Carew, and William Blake, whose “A Dream” and “The Little Boy Lost” open the album and whose “A Cradle Song” closes it.
Thomas takes great pains to ensure that neither the melodies nor the instruments (Thomas’ guitars, keyboards, double bass, gamba, and cello percussion; Dave Shulman’s clarinets; Liam Byrne’s viola da gamba; Malte Hage’s electric bass) overwhelm the words. In so doing, he increases the likelihood that other projects of this kind will attempt a similarly gentle sensitivity—and that other projects of this kind will happen.
The two explicitly Shakespearean albums bypass the “Rival Poet” sonnets altogether and give short shrift to those addressed to the mysterious “Dark Lady,” emphasizing instead the “Fair Youth” sonnets (1-77 and 87-126), in which a middle-aged man celebrates the beauty of a son-like figure and urges him to reproduce lest his image die with him.
Kelly’s 20-minute Seven Sonnets and a Song (Cooking Vinyl) opens with a cabaret-friendly rendition of the “Dark Lady” Sonnet 138 but proceeds apace to a waltz-time setting of the “Fair Youth” Sonnet 73. At a succinct one minute and 54 seconds, it honors the poem’s wistful recognition of time’s self-consuming nature and proves the wisdom of Kelly’s decision to limit himself and his accompanists to folk-music instrumentation.
Kelly sets Sonnets 18 and 60 to minor-key melodies and stretches them to over three minutes each by singing them twice. He echoes the accomplishment in his combination of Sonnets 44 and 45. Midway, Kelly’s fellow Australian Vika Bull takes the lead vocal on Sir Philip Sidney’s “My True Love Hath My Heart.”
Seven Sonnets concludes with a setting of “O Mistress Mine” that, if only for its simplicity, should become the standard for future productions of Twelfth Night.
Wainwright’s Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets (Deutsche Grammophon) has grander ambitions. Like Kelly, Wainwright prefers the “Fair Youth” sonnets. Unlike Kelly, Wainwright pulls out the stylistic stops. Opera-friendly settings predominate, but there’s also something for rock, Kurt Weill (Sonnets 66 and 87 are in German), and recitation fans as well.
The reciters include Inge Carter, Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher, Siân Phillips, Frally Hynes, Peter Eyre, and—in Sonnet 129—William Shatner. The vocalists include the surprisingly sympathetic Florence Welch, the unsurprisingly sympathetic Austrian coloratura soprano Anna Prohaska, and the entirely adequate Wainwright himself.
The resulting whole will overwhelm anyone in search of easy access to why Shakespeare has long been considered the greatest writer in the English language. It will not overwhelm the patient novice or the many who’ve already been enlightened by these magnificent texts and for whom the issue of Shakespeare’s stature is beyond dispute.