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Countertenorism – Nessuno suona la stesso?

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 24, 2015 at 10:45 am

Review – The Five Countertenors (Valer Sabadus, Xavier Sabata, Max Emanuel Cencic, Yuri Mynenko & Vince Yi; Armonia Atenea & George Petrou)

It was inevitable that at some point an album such as this would appear – perhaps the marketing people thought it might do for countertenors what the Three Tenors did back in July 1990? It might not be the worst album cover, but it simply doesn’t do justice to the level of musicianship on this new recital album.

Rather than Nessun dorma of the three tenors, perhaps this album should be Nessuno suona la stesso, because what strikes me immediately is the broad range of voices in terms of range and distinctive tmibres of the performers.

And what is equally refreshing is that rather than a list of common-hackney’d arias, there’s music by Jomelli, JC Bach (hopefully is star will become increasingly in the ascendant), Mysliviček, Galuppi and Bertoni alongside Handel and Popora and Gluck.

Personally, the performances by Valer Sabadus are at the top of my list. Both the arias he performs here – by Jomelli and Gluck – were written for the same castrato, Felice Salimbeni and the demonstrate not only Sabadus’ technical virtuosity and his ability to deliver a beautifully sustained vocal line but also the warmth and depth of his voice. Jomelli’s Spezza lo stral piagato from Tito Manlio is a typical simile aria and perhaps also evidence of Jomelli’s more pioneering spirit in that the second section of the aria is simply an extension – but not a strict development – of opening material.

Non so frenare il pianto from Gluck’s Demetrio is more “pathetic” in mood. The composer fully deploys dissonance and rhythmic motifs to portray the grief and tears of the protagonist, above which Sabadus spins out the vocal line. The contrasting and faster mid-section remains in the minor key and only helps in reinforcing the tragedy befalling Demetrio before Sabadus’ ornamentation in the returning da capo ensures that this is one of the highlights of the entire disc.

Xavier Sabata more ‘earthy’ timbre is perfectly suited to O di spietati numi più spietato ministro! …Tu, spietato, non farai cader vittima from Popora’s Ifigenia , written for Senesino in London in direct competition with Handel. After a suitably dramatic accompagnato, the defiance of Tu, spietato with its combination of declamation, coloratura and unison passages is wonderfully depicted by Sabata. If you’ve heard Sabata in the latest recording of Tamerlano and his own recital disc of villains, then you will now Sabata is a Handelian par excellence. Otton, Otton, qual portentoso fulmine è questi? … Voi che udite il mio lamento is remarkable, considering Agrippina was one of Handel’s first operas, for the confidence of the writing and its emotional weight. The aria is an excellent example of Handel’s innate ability of portraying the protagonist’s emotional and psychological state of mind.

Max Emanuel Cencic gives us Galuppi and Bertoni. From Galuppi’s Penelope and performed in London he sings Telemacco’s aria A questa bianca mano, a well-crafted aria set apart by its somewhat memorable rhythmic accompaniment and scoring for oboe. If Addio, o miei sospire from Bertoni’s Tancredi sounds somewhat familiar then it’s because it is often accredited to Gluck and inserted in Orfeo ed Euridice. It’s a jolly aria and performed with panache – coloratura and all – by Cencic.

The final two countertenors of the quintet are unknown to me. Yuri Mynenko has a very pleasing timbre and zips through Handel’s Crude furie degl’ orridi abissi before delivering a very accomplished performance of Ch’io parta from JC Bach’s Temistocle. Its alternating passages underline how in 1772 the composer was experimenting with more traditional aria formats, and it’s also easy to hear the influence that Bach’s son had on a young Mozart and why the latter held him in such high esteem.

While listening to this disc with a friend, he referred to Vince Yi as a ‘male sopraniste’ rather than a countertenor. It’s a term I have heard in the past but not quite sure in what context. Yi effortlessly throws off the coloratura in Mysliviček’s Ti parli in seno amore and sails through Ah, non è ver, ben mio from Hasse’s Piramo e Tisbe but there is no denying that Yi has a very distinct timbre. It offers the same flexibility and agility but with its more reed-like tone, doesn’t offer the same depth and colour. However it just demonstrates the range of ‘types’ when it comes to countertenors and he is – without doubt and like his companions on the disc – a performer of musical intelligence.

Underpinning each performance is some superlative playing by Armonia Atenea, directed by George Petrou. This ensemble produce a rich and intense sound, full of rhythmic vitality and for once I admit I wish that perhaps a few overtures had been thrown into the recital so that we could hear the ensemble in their own right.

This is not only a refreshing album, but an album brimming with excellent – and individually distinctive – performances, full of vigour and a clear passion for the music itself.

Perhaps these six will perform at the opening ceremony in Russia in 2018?

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