Alfred Deller's last interview: 'the best singing is natural singing'

Mike Ashman Mon 27th March 2017

Mike Ashman interviewed the great countertenor in Gramophone's August 1979 issue, just 11 days before Deller's untimely death

"When I found this place 21 years ago", said Alfred Deller, waving a hand at the beautiful and generous-sized garden that surrounds his 15th-century Kentish cottage, "it was completely deserted - no one had lived here for years. During our festival" - the annual Stour Music which he promotes every year at the nearby church of All Saints', Boughton Aluph – "we have a big marquee on the lawn where everyone can come to eat and drink. And when we're recording" - which he also does in the church - "the whole team can come back to the house for meals and discussions: it's all like one big family that can work well together. Mind you, I have to keep working to pay for it all!"

In his sixties Deller's activities as singer, conductor, teacher and promoter continue unabated. "I've cut down a little on touring. I used to be away seven months in a year. I can still sing as well as ever - without meaning to be immodest - and I've still got the energy: I just need more time to bank it up. Happily, Mark [his son] has really made a breakthrough with the Deller Consort, so he's taking over from me there". A jet plane crossed the sky. "That's our biggest problem when we're recording. When we made that album of Dowland Songs (Harmonia Mundi, 11/78) we had to do 17 takes of one song because of aeroplanes going overhead". Like most of Deller's recordings this set was made in the comparatively fast time of six sessions spread over two days. "You know, of course, that I always opt for the take that's musically most satisfying rather than technically the most perfect. I do listen to my own records but normally only once - and I have to be completely alone. The system we have here is a very good one. The Harmonia Mundi engineers come over from France with all the equipment and we put them up at the house. They also do the mixing here so I can hear that as well and not let it go until we've got virtually the finished product. You can't re-listen too much though - after a while the ear just goes".

Deller's very first 78 rpm records were made for HMV in 1949 - including Purcell's "Music for a while" from the incidental music to Oedipus, which so moved Sir Michael Tippett when he first heard Deller sing an arrangement of it in wartime Canterbury (C3890, 8/49). Then in 1954 Gustav Leonhardt, at that time a professor in Vienna, recommended Deller to a new, specialist American label - Vanguard. "It was a great success, without mincing words", said Deller, "I made 55 LPs for them and we always got on very well. Some of the records, I know, are now collectors' items, especially the Bach one" [Cantatas Nos 54 and 170 and the "Agnus Dei" from the Mass in B minor, 4/56]. Then in 1967 the Consort was giving a concert in Avignon and Bernard Coutaz, head of Harmonia Mundi, came up afterwards and said he'd really like to record us. We arranged things so as to start a small company within a company, Deller Records. I would be artistic director, Coutaz would handle the business. Also, I'm not pushed - I can record what I like when I like".

Deller's most recent sessions have been devoted to a group of Purcell songs with Wieland Kuijken and William Christie as accompanists. More Purcell follows in the autumn with "a remake of the big Ode to St Cecilia and the much-admired but little heard Yorkshire Feace Song". The countertenor's most urgent ambition, however, lies in the field of the theatre: to mount a period staging of one of the large Purcell works. Talk of such a re-creation led us naturally on to authenticity of musical performance. "I'm not a big buff for authenticity, as you know. Discrimination, taste and experience matter more to me. So-called authenticity can easily become an end in itself. I can really understand what some people mean when they call performances on original instruments 'vegetarian music'! All I can say is that if their violins were really played like that - no vibrato and so on - they should have been superseded. But I don't think they were! The same goes for singing. Can you realIy believe, for instance, that Dowland's songs were originally delivered without a trace of emotion? If you understand the words and you're really involved with them the voice will almost colour itself naturally – that's how I use vibrato. I've always had a natural love for language. With Purcell, of course, the voice setting is so...well, subtle is just too weak a word". But Alfred Deller is far from being a conservative in matters of style: the owner of a type of voice once thought lost forever, whose work alone has allowed us proper hearings of many of the great Baroque compositions could hardly be that.

Finally we talked about the Deller voice itself. "The best definition is still that given by Michael Tippett back in the 1940s when he introduced me at a concert - a countertenor is a male alto with what we would now regard as exceptional range and facility. Everyone has this voice: it's just a question of developing it. Whoever invented the term 'falsetto' did a great deal of harm to the theories of singing. But the rest is just having the talent: the best singing is natural singing".

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