Thursday 10 December 2009

A tale of two counter-tenors

Last night we went to the Wigmore Hall for Bejun Mehta's recital with Nicholas Drake accompanying on piano. And last week we went to the Barbican for Philippe Jaroussky's concert with Concerto Köln. Both counter-tenors are in the current vanguard of young start counter-tenors. Both have relatively high-placed voices which enable them to sing a wider range of pieces than is commonly associated with counter-tenors.

Jaroussky stuck firmly to baroque repertoire, mixing operatic arias by J.C. Bach with more well known ones by Handel. Jaroussky's voice is sweet and beautiful, but does not strike me as being exceptionally powerful. He does, though, have an upward extension which means that he has greater flexibility and control in his upper reaches and seemed unphased by top E's (and perhaps even F's) [at concert pitch, I've no idea what the written pitch of the notes was]. This is allied to a strong technique, which meant that he was able to dash off with ease the virtuoso vocal parts written by J.C. Bach.

I am not sure that Handel was the best partner for the J.C. Bach arias, as Handel's ability to mine the depths of emotion, with relatively economical means rather showed up J.C. Bach's showier (flashier?) arias, which seemed to skim the surface, but did so in a quite brilliant manner. One could understand why his music was popular. Especially when these vocal lines were coupled to attractive proto-Mozartian accompaniments.

Concerto Köln played conductorless and there were times when I felt that a stronger guiding hand might have helped. Jaroussky had a tendency to go over-board in the da capo sections of the Handel arias, re-writing the vocal line in an alarming manner. This is definitely a place where less is more.

Mehta in his recital, ranged far more widely, creating a programme which would not have been out of place for a variety of more traditional song recital voices. He started with Purcell and Haydn's English Canzonets. Finished the first half with Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte. Then in the second half gave us a ravishing selection of English song from Vaughan Williams, Howells, Stanford, Lennoz Berkely, Gurney and Warlock.

Mehta's voice is similarly quite highly placed, and he sang most of the songs in quite high keys, providing plenty of top E's. But Mehta's voice also has darker tones than Jaroussky's and I was conscious at times of Mehta's managing his voice in its upper register, whereas I wasn't conscious of this with Jaroussky.

Mehta seems to be conscious of delivery a finely crafted vocal line, and sometimes seemed to sacrifice other elements to the beauty of line. There was a feeling that he rather slid round the notes a little too much, his technique seemed far more suitable for the songs in the 2nd half than the first. Or perhaps it was just that he had relaxed a bit more. For whatever reason, the Purcell and Haydn, whilst beautifully done, rather failed to make their mark completely. I think that Mehta is also a little to interventionist and perhaps needed to find a vein of plangent simplicity [something he did only at the end with a lovely performance of Music for a While as his final encore].

Beethoven's cycle was well crafted and dramatic, but I wanted more a feeling of the words.

But in the English songs, technique and music seemed to come together. Mehta's plangent tones exactly suited the songs. Voice, artists and composer seemed to come together perfectly in Howells The little boy lost and The Willow Bird. Stanfords La Belle Dame sans merci enabled Mehta to demonstrate his dramatic skills.

Both counter-tenors explored new repertoire, Jaroussky brilliantly venturing 4 barely-known J.C. Bach arias which needed (and got) a brilliant technique to make them work. American born and trained Mehta was also venturing into new repertoire, not only was his recital unusual territory for a counter-tenor, but for Mehta himself the English song repertoire was relatively unfamiliar territory.

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