ENCOUNTERS WITH COUNTERTENORS
Sometimes I listen to a CD, it makes no impact, and then I return to it months later and suddenly it’s my record of the year! That’s what happened with a recording by Andreas Scholl called O Solitude! It’s a stunning collection of some of the most interesting arias and songs by Purcell performed by one of today’s leading countertenors. This disc also includes two duets with the brilliant French countertenor Christophe Dumaux. Scholl and Dumaux’s rendering of the duet Sound the Trumpet is simply the best one I’ve heard since Janet Baker and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau performed it together; and it’s fascinating to listen, for example, to Dido’s Lament sung by Scholl. Scholl has one of the most pleasing and mellifluous voices of our time in the countertenor range; he is also, on stage, a terrific actor; and he sings not only with consistent taste but also with wonderful understanding and expression of the texts. The experience has made me listen again to some David Daniels discs as well and to think a bit about the contemporary taste for the countertenor voice.
So what is this countertenor voice, the popularity of which in our time probably goes back to Alfred Deller? Deller, who was the most famous countertenor in the vanguard of the revival of interest in this voice, was a pretty detached singer emotionally with (for me) a slightly eunochoid sound. Today’s countertenors are much more dramatically committed and convincing. It’s as if technique – which was a primary concern in the early days – has now become a “given” and they can get on with serious interpretation. The line of a countertenor lies slightly above the tenor line in range. The name was given to the voices that actually sang across the tenor lines in Mediaeval and even Renaissance music. Countertenors aren’t men who are simply singing falsetto. Countertenors are men who have second-mode phonation or a pure head register beyond the tenor range. The voice or range is an extension of an existing voice.
It was during the height of the castrato’s period of popularity that the “second-mode” singers who were not castrated started to wane in popularity. And why not? The castrato was a whole new event for music – and its blazes of both glory and madness are brilliantly recounted in a great schlock novel by Ann Rice called Cry to Heaven. While enjoying a wonderful Hitchcockian thriller plot and lots of semi-pornographic activity set in Baroque Venice, Florence and Rome, you will also learn more than you will ever need to know about castrated singers. Sadly, Ann Rice abandoned her castrati for vampires and witches, which is a real shame.
Countertenors couldn’t go as high as some castrati who could also attain and retain totally the pure soprano range that they’d had as boys. With stronger projection than countertenors because of the development of their barrel-like chests the castrati voices got larger and larger, however sweet and unearthly the sound, and tended to last well into the singers 60s or even 70s, so careers were not only spectacular, but long. These men also grew taller than most people of the time and were heroic-looking on stage in costume. How could a mere countertenor compete with all this?
Though the “second-mode specialists” faded almost entirely there were some contralto tenors still in the choir of the Sistine Chapel, so it remained an option for musicians, interested amateurs and those in the know, and the tradition continued (technically) unbroken down the ages. In England, this second-mode tradition continued in cathedrals and in church music, in academia and in glee clubs. Deller’s pioneering work as a countertenor spread his influence from the mid-1940s; he and his followers basically returned to the mainstream concert and opera stage the presence of the countertenor voice and vocal production in a secular and solo capacity. Countertenor vocal production also remained popular in the USA in folk songs, and in the West. And, of course, there are countertenor-style vocal productions in the 1950s and 1960s in some pop music, which also helped spread the sound of that voice further.
One of the newest countertenors emerging on the scene today is Iestyn Davies. He has just recorded a rather pleasant disc of Cantatas by Nicola Porpora. You might call the music “Handel Lite” but the real justification for this disc, in my opinion, is not the rediscovery of Porpora as much as it’s the discovery of this voice. Davies is becoming well known and successful in the UK and Europe and is going to be making his Met debut this season as Unolfo in Handel’s Rodelinda (with Andreas Scholl singing Bertarido).
Many people cannot stand the countertenor sound; if this kind of vocal production doesn’t appeal to you, then leave it alone. But if it does, then you would have to go very far to hear better performances in this style than those of Andreas Scholl, Christophe Dumaux or Iestyn Davies. Time to give them a try? You’ll hear some stunning vocalizing and some brilliant music. And you might just change your mind.
Purcell, O Solitude Andreas Scholl, Accademia Bizantina, Stefano Montanari Decca 478 2262 (UK)
Porpora, Cantatas 7 – 12 Iestyn Davies, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Charlie Siem strikes again!
I mentioned the violinist Charlie Siem before and here he comes again ― this time with a disc of concertos by Bruch and Wieniawski. Siem plays both these well-known pieces with a wonderful, rich sound and great charm as well as impeccable technique, and adds to the mix on the CD an interesting “cantabile doloroso” by Ole Bull. Supported stylishly by the LSO under the conductor Andrew Gourlay, this is not only an appealing disc in itself but also a confirmation that in Charlie Siem we are watching the emergence of a new violin star of international calibre and interest.
Bruch, Wieniawski and Ole Bull Concertos, Charlie Siem, violin; London Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Gourley Warners 2564 66661-2