The countertenor voice isn´t a new phenomenon of our musical life. About three decades ago, the reinventor of this sort of vocal emission was here with his son: Alfred with Mark Deller sang countertenor duets and solos (even before, the New York Pro Musica brought along the transparent voice of Russell Oberlin). I met Deller in the Fifties with his groundbreaking and wonderful Vanguard records, and I heard him in an unforgettable recital at Washington´s Library of Congress in December 1957.
Since then, the Baroque market has burgeoned with countertenors galore. The complete Bach sacred cantatas under Leonhardt and Harnonocourt featured Paul Esswood. Festivales Musicales brought English groups that premièred Purcell masques here with countertenors and William Christie with Les Arts Florissants did French repertoire with the likes of Dominique Visse. Argentina produced international countertenors such as Franco Fagioli and Martín Oro. The Mozarteum brought countertenor stars for Baroque programmes. The Colón presented Monteverdi´s "L´incoronazione di Poppea" with countertenors Michael Chance and Visse.
So the debut of Philippe Jaroussky with his Artaserse Ensemble for an all-Vivaldi night was certainly welcome for he is an important artist, but the countertenor battle has long been won in our midst. There will always be prejudice against men who sing in contralto or soprano tessitura, but it is simply a matter of singing with head voice. The concerts (there are two subscription series) closed the successful Mozarteum season brilliantly.
I have written before that the repertoire of Händel operas will never be able to be reproduced exactly as it were in the composer´s time because castrati have disappeared. Yes, it´s intriguing to imagine the splendor of those males with powerful lungs that sang in women´s tessituras and the abundant references of 1720s and 1730s tell us that they were musically and sonorously fascinating. But I don´t see candidates that in the name of pure historicism would want to go under the knife...And so their parts are sung now by women or by countertenors; I much prefer the second option.
Since the Deller years countertenors have found a way to be more audible and now they can be heard in big theatres like the Colón. They will never have the fullness of a lung-projected voice, but I heard Jarousski at all times, although sometimes tenuously in slow, meditative music.
My generation (I have just reached my 76th year) saw the eclosion of the Vivaldi mania with the glorious recording by I Musici of "Il Cimento dell´armonia e dell´invenzione", whose initial concerti are "The Four Seasons", now classical music´s top hit. It also witnessed the discovery of hundreds of forgotten scores and the substitution of the obsolete Pincherle catalogue by the Ryom.
Now all the instrumental and the sacred music is recorded but quite a few of his 40 operas remain unknown; so it was very useful that Jarousski programmed pieces from "Il Giustino", "Orlando finto pazzo" and "L´Olimpiade". I remember the stunned surprise provoked about thirty years ago by the première of "Il Giustino" at the Coliseo by a group of Leyla Gencer disciples in a production that featured L´Olimpichetto, a portable reduction of Palladio´s Vicenza Teatro Olimpico. Unfortunately no further operas have been heard since then.
The Ensemble Artaserse has grown since it was founded by Jarousski in 2002, when the countertenor was only 21; as it came to BA it numbered 13 strings plus a theorbo and harpsichord and organ. Led by Alessandro Tampieri they first played the Concerto for strings and continuo in C minor, RV 120; the reading seemed to me very accurate though rather soft in attack. After the "Stabat Mater" (of which more below), they did what I find an aberration: instead of playing the whole of the announced Concerto for strings and continuo in D major, RV 123, they only played the first movement as an introduction to the Motet "Longe mala, umbrae terrores".
I wasn´t quite convinced by Jarousski in the "Stabat Mater" (which includes the first ten verses of the original twenty), sung with too many gestures and not enough sacrality, but the fast initial aria of the motet was impressive: his voice went with complete ease to the higher regions and the articulation of the florid passages was simply fantastic. The other, slower aria, was sensitively sung.
But it was in the operatic repertoire that Jarousski completely bowled me over, even if it left me more admirative than moved. The voice is beautiful and pure, the Baroque articulation is of uncanny precision, and the music he chose was either fast and nervous or slow and expressive. Both moods were impeccably done and the Artaserse accompanied very well. The instrumental group also did a fine performance of the Concerto Op.3 Nº 8 from the famous series "L´Estro Armonico", with Tampieri and the idiosyncratic Petr Ruzicka as interesting soloists.
More Vivaldi in the encores: "Sento in seno" from "Il Giustino", and the lovely "Cum dederit" from the "Nisi dominus" RV 608, done with taste and serenity.
I will add that Vivaldi is much more varied than the usual image of him, and that I was never bored; rather, I wish there were more programmes entirely dedicated to him. There´s still so much that isn´t known and of such elevated quality For he was undoubtedly the greatest Italian of the Late Baroque. What an incredible genius to extract so much from such simple elements!
For Buenos Aires Herald