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GRAMOPHONE (05/2023)
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Reviewer :
Tim Ashley

After ‘BariTenor’, which caused a considerable stir on its release two years ago (A/21), we have ‘Contra-Tenor’, ostensibly its prequel, though there are differences, significant and subtle, between the two. Both albums display Michael Spyres’s often formidable technique and artistry as well as that truly remarkable voice with its three-octave range, which allows him to sing both tenor and baritone roles – comfortably encompassed in ‘BariTenor’ with a chronological survey of music for both voice types from Mozart to Korngold and Orff, performed with stylish brilliance and considerable dramatic flair. For ‘Contra-Tenor’ he turns his attention to Baroque music in another chronological survey, this time of airs and arias from Lully to the young Mozart and Piccinni, and the last two tracks – Mitridate’s ‘Se di lauri’ and ‘En butte au fureurs de l’orage’ from Roland – lead naturally towards Idomeneo’s ‘Fuor del mar’, with which ‘BariTenor’ opens.


Yet at the same time the emphasis has shifted. Spyres confines himself here to a repertory for singers that the 18th century defined as tenors, though this in turn embraces a multiplicity of styles and voices from the hautes-contres of Lully and Gluck’s Orphée to the bravura vocalists for whom now obscure composers such as Gaetano Latilla and Domenico Sarro wrote arias of atrocious difficulty, requiring athletic technique and multiple-octave ranges. The aim, Spyres tells us in a booklet note, is to refocus the attention on the tenor in 17th- and 18th-century opera in the wake of a Baroque vocal revival predominantly led by mezzo-sopranos and countertenors willing to tackle the equally demanding castrato repertory.


As a result, ‘Contra-Tenor’ is in many ways a more cogent disc than its predecessor, though it is also just as spectacular, if not more so. The big show-stoppers are simply jaw-dropping. Cosroe’s aria from Lattila’s Siroe, in which an enraged father turns on his recalcitrant son, rears and plunges across well over two and a half octaves. Spyres’s vocal span widens yet further in the descending threeoctave cadenza at the end of Antigono’s aria from Mazzoni’s opera of the same name. The speed with which his voice moves can be breathtaking, particularly in the swirling coloratura and flickering turns of an aria from Porpora’s Germanico in Germania, while his decorations on da capo repeats take him thrillingly into the depths as well as the stratospheres.


As with ‘BariTenor’, everything is beautifully characterised, though even more striking here is Spyres’s ability to lighten or weight his tone through a whole aria for interpretative effect. So Latilla’s Cosroe roars with virile rage where Vivaldi’s equally livid Artabano masks anger with principled hauteur. The air from Lully’s Persée is impeccably done, with Spyres sounding as if he could have strayed from a Rousset or Christie recording of one of the complete operas. ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’, though, arouses mixed feelings: Spyres sounds perfectly at ease with Gluck’s implacable tessitura but harpsichordist-conductor Francesco Corti and Il Pomo d’Oro are curiously slow and stately here – uncharacteristically so, given the elegance, exuberance and brilliance of their contributions elsewhere. Overall, though, it’s an enthralling disc as one might expect, and the best of it is sensational indeed.

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