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  41:2 (11-12 /2017)
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Reviewer: Joshua Cohen

During the last review cycle I reviewed favorably a new recording of Handel’s German arias sung by Canadian soprano Gillian Keith (Channel Classics CCS 35117). I refer readers to that review for more detailed comments on the pieces themselves. This time around, the interpreter is a young German countertenor named Fritz Spengler, in what I believe to be—if not his debut recording—in any case the first to present him as a featured soloist. As a rule (there are a few exceptions) most countertenors sing primarily as male altos: Spengler’s website classifies him a “countertenor/mezzosopranist.” Attempting a full program of music written in the soprano range, with regular ascents to high A (although tuned about a semitone lower, as is common practice in period instrument performances of Baroque music) is a demanding undertaking for the countertenor/falsetto voice, even one as bracingly fresh, robust, and extended as Spengler’s is. All of the notes are there, secure and strong, but the highest tones sound forced and strident. In sustained cantilena the tone has substance and color, but the actual singing lacks shapeliness and impetus. Notes are pumped out successively rather than bound into a flowing legato line; the words are enunciated clearly but not joined together to form meaningful sentences. Runs and decorations are heavily aspirated. The spirited numbers, especially Das zitternde Glänzen and Meine Seele hört in Sehen, come out best: There, the singer’s enthusiasm and bold projection of his sound make up for any technical shortcomings.


I haven’t found any other commercial recordings of these arias by a countertenor, but there have been a few outstanding members of that tribe who have successively performed some of the higher-lying male roles in Handel’s operas, roles originally performed by female sopranos or (occasionally) high castratos. (I am thinking particularly of Phillippe Jaroussky, Max Emanuel Cenčić, and David Daniels in his younger days). YouTube has an video performance of the last aria (Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden) by Boston-based countertenor Ian Howell, who sings at a lower pitch than Spengler (presumably his back-up players have tuned their instruments further down than Spengler’s band) but gives a rendition of extraordinary beauty and technical refinement, reminding us that Handel was the leading bel canto composer of his generation, whose music calls for singers of the highest vocal accomplishment.


The Handel arias take up about 45-plus minutes of the present CD. The remaining space is given over to a group of rather bawdy 17th-century German songs by Adam Krieger, and by a purely instrumental work: Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s brief but charming dance suite Musikalische Festschul (Musical School of Fencing). The playing of Ensemble ContraPunct_us in all of the featured works is first-rate, with leader/violinist Christian Voss also contributing superb obbligato solos in some of the Handel arias.


It would be interesting to hear Spengler again in about five years. A disc devoted primarily to Handel arias may be a bit too ambitious an undertaking for a young singer producing his first solo album. Fritz Spengler is a promising countertenor: He certainly has the vocal “chops,” and I think he has the heart. But he’s not yet a finished vocalist or a fully matured musician.

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