Photo: Erich Hartman
The countertenor voice is one of most unusual and alluring sounds heard in Western classical music. It is the highest natural male voice and one that has been heard in recording with increasing frequency from the middle of the 20th Century to the present day. During the 1960s, however, two men began what has become a veritable proliferation of the countertenor voice in recording. They’re names were Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin.
The English countertenor Alfred Deller is considered a pioneer whose career took off in post-WWII England with the help of Michael Tippett. Deller’s early musical experiences were part of the English choral tradition, yet he was especially well-known all over the world as a recitalist of Italian madrigal and Elizabethan song.
Our next countertenor was the American counterpart to Deller. Russell Oberlin trained at Juilliard and went on to have a short-lived but high-profile singing career. Along with his opera, oratorio, and recital appearances, he was a founding member of the New York Pro Musica.
From Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin in the 1960s we move into the 70s where we meet a couple of countertenors from England and one from Belgium.
Englishman James Bowman’s career took off towards the end of the 60s. He has since made his reputation as a noted Handel interpreter, yet he’s also known for other early repertoire from the 16th- through 18th Centuries. As well, the music of Benjamin Britten has been one his strengths.
Another British countertenor of note from the 1970s is Paul Esswood, who is primarily known for his participation in the first complete period-instrument recording of J.S. Bach’s cantatas on the Teldec label with directors Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Here’s Paul Esswood singing the aria “Kein Arzt ist außer dir zu finden” from cantata BWV 103. Esswood is joined by recorder soloist Frans Brüggen.
Belgian countertenor René Jacobs is known today as a famous early opera director and teacher, having nurtured, among others, a number of singers who are well-known. His early career, though, was marked by his own success as a countertenor. His repertoire is noted for a wide spectrum of early music (beginning with the Renaissance and moving right through the 18th Century).
If the 60s and 70s had a few prominent countertenors, then the 1980s significantly added to the list, including Americans and Frenchmen.
Jeffrey Gall is an American countertenor who specializes in baroque opera. He holds the distinction of being the first countertenor to perform in a significant role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Here’s Gall in a scene from Francesco Cavalli’s opera Xerse. A brief exchange with countertenor Dominique Visse is followed by Gall in the aria “Innamorato cor.”
Another prominent American countertenor was Drew Minter who championed Handel’s opera roles under Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. He is also known as a stage director and for the acclaimed medieval ensemble Trefoil.
French countertenor Dominique Visse is best known as the founder of Ensemble Clement Janequin, a group specializing in vocal music of the Renaissance. Yet he has explored a vast amount of early repertoire, including oratorio and opera.
Like his English predecessors, Michael Chance arrived on the scene with a choral background and has since made a name for himself in opera, oratorio, and smaller scale early repertoire. In the area of New Music, he has had quite a few compositions written specifically for him by a number of composers, including Anthony Powers, Tan Dun, John Tavener, and Elvis Costello.
Derek Lee Ragin
Dramatic and flamboyant, Derek Lee Ragin is the first prominent African-American countertenor. An Oberlin graduate, he is also one of the first countertenors to appear at the Metropolitan opera in a substantial role. Ragin is particularly known for his memorable portrayals of Handel opera roles.
Our new release of the week features the violin music of Jean-Marie Leclair on the Naxos label. Leclair’s op. 1 violin sonatas (nos. 1-4) are performed by Adrian Butterfield, violin, Alison McGillivray, cello, and harpsichordist Laurence Cummings.