Playlist: a history of the countertenor voice on record

James Jolly Mon 27th February 2017

James Jolly traces the development of countertenor singing, from Alfred Deller to the present day

‘Mr Deller uses his voice with great art and it shows no trace of the flabby tone of some singers of his kind; it has indeed considerable resonance and a beautiful flexibility.’ So wrote Gramophone in August 1949 of perhaps the first countertenor to appear in our pages. If Alfred Deller was the pioneer in Europe, Russell Oberlin made the voice type famous in America with a smooth, rather androgynous sound (and fabulous diction). James Bowman was the next star countertenor in the UK, an inspiring musician whose tone and delivery is immediately recognisable (try him in his prime in 1975 in Vivaldi’s Stabat mater). Paul Esswood, with a more restrained manner, has a sound many describe as being particularly ‘English’ – his Britten folksongs find him at his most expressive, but sample him as Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. Michael Chance, a superb exponent of Early and Baroque repertoires, seemed to usher in a new style of countertenor singing, one characterised by very little vibrato and an ease of delivery with no apparent ‘gear change’. Chance’s lute-song album with Christopher Wilson, ‘The Sypres Curten of the Night’, is a particular favourite. Jochen Kowalski possesses a rich and powerful voice that has allowed him to ride a modern orchestra with ease (in roles such as Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus) and he has a range that takes him higher than many of his colleagues. Gérard Lesne, of the same generation as Kowalski, has focused on earlier repertoires and was one of the first countertenor stars in his native France; his impassioned singing of Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde, once attributed to Bach and with its ravishing bell obbligato, is a highlight of his catalogue. Andreas Scholl, for many the first countertenor to achieve a ‘mainstream’ following, heralded yet another style of vocal production characterised by beauty of tone and a wonderful sense of freedom. The Americans Derek Lee Ragin and David Daniels sing with an astounding ease, sweetness and grace; both are superb representatives of the ‘modern countertenor’. From them to Philippe Jaroussky is but a small jump.

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