Friday, 5 January 2007

Stylistic Challenges

When the period practice movement started going, the performers were generally all specialists; this was particularly true of the singers. It was rare for a well-known singer from the standard repertoire to cross over and record with a period group. This did happen, Ileana Cotrubas made a striking contribution to Handel’s Rinaldo, showing that she could keep her vibrato under control and blend with singers well versed in period practice. And when Joan Sutherland recorded Athalia with Christopher Hogwood, though she did not really blend, the nature of the drama was such that Sutherland did not stand out too much.

But gradually things changed and younger performers became comfortable crossing between the 2 worlds. ENO’s early performances of Handel’s Julius Caesar were cast with singers who had a long Handel pedigree (Janet Baker, Valerie Masterson, Sarah Walker); not strictly period practice performers, but singers who had worked extensively singing this style of music with the most advanced of the modern instrument groups such as the English Chamber Orchestra.

When ENO re-mounted the production many years later it was cast from singers from their roster. Listening to it on the radio, I was struck by how much of the period performance practice had made its way into the opera house. The ENO Orchestra at this time was streets ahead of the Royal Opera House in terms of introducing period practice to their modern instruments. This has continued, whereas the Royal Opera tends to employ outside period bands ENO uses its own orchestra. The recent Orfeo successfully blended their own musicians with key period practice personnel. This does not always work, the Bach Passion performances were an uneasy mixture of old and new with the gambas rather standing out. After listening to one of these performances, I came to understand Vaughan Williams’s antipathy to using the viola da gamba and the harpsichord in his large scale, modern instrument performances of the St. Matthew Passion at the Leith Hill Festival.

But since then, things have moved on even further and there is a whole generation of singers who move effortlessly between the two worlds. This involves an element of compromise. Anyone who listens to Ian Bostridge’s recording of Monteverdi’s Orfeo under Emmanuelle Haim cannot help but be impressed with his performance but notice how is style and technique is very individual and not completely in harmony with period practice.

I must here confess a prejudice and state that for me, the idea Monteverdi tenor is someone like Nigel Rogers who sings with an edge to his voice, not too much vibrato and wonderful line and crystal clear ornaments. The issue of line and of ornaments bothers me.

On a couple of recent recordings of Monteverdi and of Cavalli I was impressed by the way singers who specialise mainly in 19th century Italian opera, fitted their voices to the 17th century vocal line. But I was disturbed by the use of vibrato, the singing of the high tenor line in a very open throated tone, the concentration on beauty of vocal sound rather than a good line and a distinctly 19th century attitude to the shape of ornaments. On one recording, the tenor was impressive but consistently too loud, probably because of the tessitura of the part.

Half of me gets annoyed by these compromises. But the other half appreciates being able to hear this music sung by some of the best voices of our generation. And there’s the nub. Monteverdi, Cavalli, Handel, Vivaldi et al wrote for some of the finest voices of their generation. Their music needs style, technique and fine vocal quality. To hear the finest voices of today in this repertoire would be quite something and is desirable, even if we have to impose compromises.

For some voices, the stylistic gap is too wide; I’m not sure that Pavarotti would have ever have been quite suitable for Bajazet in Tamerlano. But Tom Randle has made quite a career flitting between later opera and Handel’s meaty tenor part. When I heard him there was a stylistic gap between him and his fellow singers, but it was not too disturbing and worth it for hearing such a fine voice in this music.

And there’s the rub. Vocal technique has moved on so much that it is almost impossible for a singer to cross boundaries without some sort of compromise. But it’s worth it to hear great voices in great music.


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