Saturday 11 November 2017

So what exactly is an haut-contre?

Samuel Boden (Photo: Marco Borggreve)
Samuel Boden (Photo: Marco Borggreve)
The haut-contre, that high tenor voice so necessary for French baroque repertoire, is a fascinating and relatively rare thing. So it was particularly interesting to be able to get up close, so to speak, at a private event for Arcangelo's patrons and supporters when Jonathan Cohen (Arcangelo's artistic director) was joined by tenor Samuel Boden (who features on the group's latest disc of music by John Blow) to perform music by Charpentier and to talk about what exactly is the haut-contre.

It has been a busy year for Arcangelo, they have just finished a residency at the Wigmore Hall where they were the first Baroque group to do so, and the group's recording of Bach cantatas with Iestyn Davies won the Baroque Vocal category in the 2017 Gramophone Awards, whilst their disc of music by John Blow, An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell & other works on Hyperion, with Samuel Boden and Thomas Walker, is winning plaudits.

Jonathan Cohen and Samuel Boden started the evening with an excerpt from Charpentier's La descente d'Orphée aux Enfers which led to a discussion about the importance of clarity of language when singing French baroque music. Samuel Boden's mother is a language teacher which has helped him, recognising that the words are as important as the music. In a sense, the music is there to colour the words, and of course sung French of the period is far more formal than spoken French. For Samuel, the expressive language allows you to tell a story with just the singer, a lute or a harpsichord in a relatively intimate room. They then performed some more Charpentier, this time a powerful excerpt from Acteon.

Though the haut-contre voice type is very specific to French music, the voice can also be used in English Baroque which absorbed a lot of French influences (partly thanks to Charles II's exile in France during the Interregnum). Whilst we are used to counter-tenors singing the alto lines in Purcell, this is partly because when the Baroque revival started 40 years ago the necessary high tenor voices where simply not available.

This led to a discussion about exactly what the haut-contre voice is, and Samuel's comment was that, unlike many singers, for him the passaggio, the transition  between different vocal registers, was a pleasant place and that his voice hardly has the sort of natural break which applies to most tenors in the high register. And then Jonathan played a pair of recordings, of the tenor aria 'Je crois entendre' from Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles. The first version, sung stunningly in the Italian manner using chest voice almost exclusively by a young Placido Domingo, and the second sung by the French-Canadian tenor Leopold Simoneau using a fluid technique similar to that of an haut-contre, moving seamlessly between chest and head voice.

And the evening finished with some Purcell, Music for a while

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