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Ah! Heav'n! What is't I hear?

An evening of counter-tenor [1] duets is what, going collectively under the title I've stolen for this post, and indeed featuring a duet by Blow (no giggling at the back, there!) of that name.

Oxford is lucky enough to be the home of an early music ensemble by the name of Charivari Agréable, and at the moment they are putting on a series of concerts by candlelight in Exeter College Chapel. Last night, edling and I attended the 'Ah! Heav'n!' concert, and were very much impressed.

This particular concert stood out to me because I am a convinced fan of counter-tenors. I admit, a bad counter-tenor can be pretty unpleasant. But a good counter-tenor is like nothing on earth. I would appear to remain to date the only livejournal user who finds Robin Blaze and David Cordier, in my opinion two of the best, of interest. But that is other people's loss, not mine. I firmly believe that if angels existed, they would sound like these two.

I'm also a great fan of duets. When they don't feature counter-tenors, they're already pretty good. But duets including counter-tenors, whether pairing them with each other or with other voices, really show off what I like about counter-tenor voices to best effect. I actually have a play-list of counter-tenor duets on my Windows Media Player, which I've gathered from various CDs, but never imagined I'd be lucky enough to go to a concert which rolled my two passions together in this way.

Dana Marsh and Stephen Taylor, last night's performers, did not disappoint. Their styles were quite distinct, with Dana Marsh giving a more even and controlled performance, while Stephen Taylor sometimes took a little while to settle into a piece, or went off-kilter at certain points, but produced some really divine sounds at others. On the whole, I probably preferred Dana Marsh for this reason, but Stephen Taylor did look more comfortable as a performer, which makes a difference. He engaged the audience more with eye-contact and expressive movements, while Dana Marsh looked a little more awkward - not excessively so, though, and it may be something he'll improve upon with time (he looked fairly young).

Accompanying them were Kah-Ming Ng (whose surname I hope I shall never be called upon to pronounce) on chamber organ, and Susanne Heinrich on the viol. The programme was dominated by what Mr. Ng described as 'English Melancholy', a popular style of the 17th and early 18th centuries. We therefore heard a lot of minor keys, long-drawn-out laments, and no less than three pieces written on the death of one or another figure. No, Goth as we know it today is nothing new...

We were also treated to a couple of instrumental pieces between the vocal works. This is usually done in vocal concerts to give the singers a chance to rest, and I'd assumed before I went in that the instrumental sections would strike me as not much more than bits I had to sit through while waiting for the next offering from the counter-tenors. I was pleasantly surprised, though, especially by two sets of 'Divisions' on viol and chamber organ, by someone I'd never heard of before called Godfrey Finger. These were essentially variations on a theme, but the variations were specifically created by 'dividing' up the notes in the first theme into shorter and shorter units, so the tunes sounded faster as the piece went on. They were light, elegant and tuneful, and I would definitely enjoy listening to more of them in future.

The final ingredient in the evening's pleasure was the delightfully over-the-top Victorian Gothic setting of Exeter College Chapel. Although almost two centuries newer than some of the music we were hearing in it, the dark wood, stained glass windows, ornate carvings, heraldic shields, delicately-painted organ pipes and Byzantine-esque mosaics nevertheless made for a very appropriate visual feast to take in whilst listening to the music. At the beginning of the evening (about 8pm), the windows were still illuminated from outside by the sunshine, and from the stalls where we were sitting, we could admire their various saints and angels. As time passed, they slowly faded away, leaving only some electric chandeliers turned to their very lowest setting, and a slightly alarming collection of candles at the altar end where the performers were standing. These were reflected back to us in a gentle golden glow from the opulent gilded tiles of the mosaics behind the altar, again creating a quasi-divine display of holy figures to match the angelic voices we were hearing.

Ah! Heaven! Indeed.

And now, having thought that writing this up would take me about 10 minutes, and found that it actually took an hour, I think it is probably time I went off and did some Actual Work...


[1] A counter-tenor is a male singer who uses a falsetto-based technique to sing in the alto range, or sometimes higher. They were widely used in England in the Baroque period (and earlier) along with boy singers to make up full choirs at a time when women were not allowed to sing in church. Now, with the 'renaissance' (boom, boom) of interest in early music that's occurred since WWII, they've come into demand as a way of recreating the authentic sound of early and Baroque music (much like the use of authentic period instruments), and especially as 'stand-ins' for the operatic castrati. The first 'modern' counter-tenor was Alfred Deller, who began his career in the '40s. He passed the torch on to James Bowman in the '60s (whom I've had the pleasure of seeing live in New College Chapel), and it's really taken off from there. Their repertoire generally involves 17th-century songs of the sort we heard last night, and 18th-century operatic roles - especially in Handel operas, which are also enjoying a much-deserved renaissance.

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