In an article written, I’d have sworn, no more than five or six years ago, Hugues Cuénod was reported, “when last heard of”, to be “still going strong”. But that, it turns out, was in 1997 when he was a mere 95. His death was announced on December 3, 2010. He had in the meantime gained his centenary and celebrated, the moment Swiss Law allowed, by marrying his (male) partner.
“And so you think I must have heard him? Seen him at Glyndebourne, perhaps”, people of a certain age will speculatively murmur – the answer to which is “No, you can’t possibly have done, for otherwise you would certainly remember”. For one thing he was an unforgettable figure on the stage: six foot five of gentle angularity, gleeful in cunning or in kindness, sparky in every improbable joint or sleepily melancholic. There was a Dickensian vividness about him; or he could have been all the creatures in Alice, one after another, from the White Rabbit to the aged man a-sitting on a gate. In opera he was a wicked Don Basilio, a surreal Nurse in Monteverdi, a matron beyond the size of dreams in Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. Stravinsky chose him to “create” Sellem the auctioneer in the Rake’s Progress, and practically all the leading French composers of the age wrote for him. For the voice was as special as the stage-presence. A high, crackly tenor, little quivers of vibrato putting the match to it in youth, a strange unearthly beauty providing gentle incandescence in old age.
And sing into old age he most remarkably did. None of those present will have forgotten the wonderful evening on which, under the title Such the Tenor Man Told, the pianist Graham Johnson brought the 82 year-old tenor back to the Wigmore Hall in a programme of talk and song, the tenor man in question taking his full share, including duets by Monteverdi in which he returned to the music which had first introduced him 50 years earlier. This was in the famous and pioneering album directed by Nadia Boulanger, the great teacher and inspirer of French musicians in the inter-war years. After the war the set was re-issued in England, again on 78s, widening its appeal and influence. It is quite possible that many of those who now look doubtfully at the name of Hugues Cuénod, feeling that they know it somehow yet are not quite sure how, will be half-remembering those labels from so long ago when the records opened new casements and ushered in the Monteverdi revival.
Cuénod’s singing on that evening in 1984 was beautiful beyond anything I have heard to compare, especially when he gave us unaccompanied a song by Guillaume de Machaut: pure, flexible, even and infinitely touching in expression. On records, he can be heard in a large repertoire of mediaeval song through to the elaborate Leçons de Ténèbres by Couperin. There are mélodies such as Chabrier’s L’île inconnue, and modern pieces of baffling complexity such as Stravinsky’s 1952 Cantata. And for a reminder of the naughty young man who for a while was content simply with his talent to amuse, it is worth looking out an anthology, a Christmas party in the Nimbus Prima Voce series, where in the "Lament of the Serpent Man" from Maurice Delanoy’s musical Philipine Cuénod unwinds in Latin-American rhythms while unknown instruments cavort in mournful glee.