Anthony Rolfe Johnson, revered tenor, dies

James Inverne21st Jul 2010
Anthony Rolfe Johnson, one of the greatest English tenors, has diedAnthony Rolfe Johnson, one of the greatest English tenors, has died

In a sad week for the UK, indeed the world, music scene, Anthony Rolfe Johnson has died. There had been rumours about his ill health for some years (he had been battling Alzheimer's disease), and in the event his demise came just a few months after that of his great contemporary Philip Langridge and only days after that of Sir Charles Mackerras, a conductor with whom Rolfe Johnson performed and recorded on many occasions.

A late starter who already seemed set in his career as a farmer before he was persuaded to train his voice, he was in his thirties before his attention-grabbing 1973 major-role debut with the English Opera Group, in Iolanthe. By that time it was already evident that the sheer beauty of his voice, allied to an artistry and assurance of technique that took precious little time to mature, would propel him to an international career.

He was soon taken up by many of the world's leading conductors – often the recording tenor of choice for both Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Sir John Eliot Gardiner – and song accompanists, among whom Graham Johnson selected him to join the Songmakers' Almanac (and later allotted to Rolfe Johnson some of the plum selections in his complete Schubert songs edition for Hyperion). In two instances of luxury casting, Mackerras had him as his Nanki Poo in his starry recording of The Mikado for Telarc, while Sir Georg Solti even managed to persuade him to take on the secondary role of Cassio when Pavarotti felt ready to record Verdi's Otello!

But there are plenty of recordings that fully enshrine Rolfe Johnson's tenor at its finest. Of these, it will perhaps be that of Mozart's Idomeneo for Gardiner, on Archiv Produktion, that will stand as testament to his mellifluous, agile art (at times, it seemed as if he could do almost anything with his his beautifully centred, always perfectly controlled voice). Of this set, Gramophone's Alan Blyth wrote, "This version will remain the definitive recording of Mozart's early masterpiece for a long time to come...the interpretative honours go to Rolfe Johnson." A late move into somewhat heavier fare, as a note of steel entered his tone, is well caught on Bernard Haitink's EMI Peter Grimes. He was made a CBE in 1992. 

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