Saturday 24 June 2023

Adding the countertenor voice to the conversation: Iestyn Morris on recording a disc of romantic Russian song

Nigel Foster and Iestyn Morris at Menuhin Hall
Nigel Foster and Iestyn Morris at Menuhin Hall

When the modern countertenor voice developed in the post-war period performers had two main areas of repertoire, early music and contemporary. Since then, countertenor repertoire has widened somewhat but it is still unusual to hear the countertenor voice in full-blown romantic repertoire.

Romances - Iestyn Morris, Nigel Foster - Quartz

For his debut recital disc, countertenor Iestyn Morris has pushed things further with Romances on the Quartz label with pianist Nigel Foster, creating a recital of romantic Russian song from Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov to Tanneev, Gretchaninov, Medtner and Prokofiev.

So how did a countertenor come to be recording a disc of late 19th and early 20th century Russian song?

Iestyn had always jokingly said to himself that one day he would do such a disc. But then along came COVID and suddenly he had time. During lockdown, a daily visit to the piano became part of his routine and he found himself looking at songs, such as those by Schubert, that he had not sung since he was at college. Suddenly he had time to practice, to do things he wanted to do. Mornings would be devoted to practice, afternoons to writing funding applications.

Revisiting the songs, Iestyn found in themes in the Russian repertoire that resonated with lockdown experiences - longing, separation from loved ones, loss, love of nature (Iestyn mentions that during lockdown, for the first time he got up to watch the sunrise). The Russian songs that he gradually assembled fell naturally into thematic groups - Life & Dreams, Love, Longing, Loss.

The trigger for the disc was getting funding from the Oleg Prokofiev Trust. Wanting to try the programme out and having live recitals cancelled, Iestyn found the Yehudi Menuhin School supportive and used their hall to give a series of live-streamed mini-recitals with pianist Nigel Foster [see Iestyn's introduction on YouTube]. This was enough to test the programme out, as well as increasing the size of his YouTube following.

Iestyn's love of Russian song is a personal passion dating from his post-graduate years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In the time before Milton Court was built, with a heavily subscribed course, extra classes were put on late night. Thus, Iestyn had three hours each week coaching in French and three hours in Russian in small classes. In the Russian repertoire the coach was Lada Valesova, who not only coached but encouraged him. It was a breath of fresh air, a coach who was willing to go with him and the process of studying the Russian songs transformed his voice from an Early Music one to an operatic one.

He sees the new disc as a way of paying the Russian repertoire back. The Rachmaninov 150 anniversary is almost a coincidence; 20 minutes of the programme is by Rachmaninov but the song selection was part of the process rather than deliberate anniversary chasing, though he has plans for an all-Rachmaninov programme in the Autumn. He added the Prokofiev folksongs partly as a thank you to the Oleg Prokofiev Trust for its support and he received permission to change some of the pronouns in the songs.

He has heard other countertenors doing some of this repertoire in recital and he cites hearing Lawrence Zazzo in Mussorgsky at Wigmore Hall, but he comments on a Russian song festival that had no countertenor voices and he felt he wanted to add the countertenor voice to the conversation.

Part of the problem is people perceptions of the countertenor voice, it is seen as an Early Music and contemporary music instrument. Whilst he does perform English song from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people still look in askance if he performs other Continental composers from the same era. He feels that is is important to include repertoire that does not fit people's perceptions of what the countertenor voice is. To develop the instrument as a full blown romantic one, making the case for the voice by finding new colours and interpretations within the existing framework.

Lockdown gave Iestyn the time to get the songs to the point where they sounded great, then he could simply sing them. he describes this as a very liberating experience. Most people will know the names of the composers, but often it is their symphonic works and ballets that are best known. The songs are not well known in the UK, and certainly not as explored as they should be.

Iestyn Morris in Gerald Barry's 'Triumph of Beauty and Deceit' at Karlsruhe (Dir. Sam Brown Cond. Richard Baker)
Iestyn Morris in Gerald Barry's Triumph of Beauty and Deceit in Karlsruhe (Dir. Sam Brown Cond. Richard Baker)

One interesting point is the Russian composers' choice of poets. Classic English song from the early part of the 20th century tends to focus on earlier texts, notably by poets from the Jacobean period. By contrast, Russian romantic composers focused on contemporary poets, setting English, French and German poetry in translation, as well as Russian poets. It is one of the few song-writing canons that celebrates a multi-national canon of poets from the composers' own time, rather than looking back.

There is one other point regarding this being his first recital disc. Iestyn admits that he was being pig-headed, determined to do a Romantic disc rather than a countertenor one, and it is a disc that he never thought he would get the chance to do. He wishes that more countertenors would explore this repertoire.

Anthology discs such as Iestyn's are typically not so popular with the major record labels, but more recently there has been a renewed interest in telling stories. Also, there has been a flurry of COVID-inspired albums from mature artists who suddenly had time to devote to recital discs and personal projects.

For the disc, Iestyn wanted to create the sense of a live performance rather than a pure studio recording. He and Nigel Foster recorded it in the hall of the Menuhin School and the school was most welcoming and helpful. For the recording he had to judge how far to push the voice, so that he created a recording that was repeatable yet which had the vitality and joy of live performance.

Ates Orga, Nigel Foster & Iestyn Morris during recording sessions for Romances at Menuhin Hall
Ates Orga, Nigel Foster & Iestyn Morris during recording sessions for Romances at Menuhin Hall

Recording was also collaboration in a different way; not only was he working with pianist Nigel Foster, but with producer Ates Orga and sound engineer Adaq Khan. This meant he had to have the courage to build on his won and their knowledge, to take different approaches during the recording sessions. The record was released in April 2023 with Nigel Foster and Iestyn giving a launch recital at the Bechstein Hall.

Iestyn is currently looking at roles with German opera houses for the 2023/24 season, with Handel, Purell and contemporary opera in view. He enjoys performing new music, feeling that it is important tor really sell it and own it; people will remember a performance that really grabs you.

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