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International Record Review - (11//2013)
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Appréciation d'ensemble/ Evaluation :
Reviewer:  Robert Levine


Remember when it was easy to pick between countertenors? You had Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, depending on where you lived. Then along came James Bowman, Paul Esswood and Drew Minter. Recordings were relatively scarce, devoted to lute songs and/or folk songs, and Baroque Masses and oratorios. Most of these men had diaphanous sounds, not trained for the opera house, and hardly anyone knew that Vivaldi had written dozens of operas with castrati as star singers; women were cast in castrati roles in Handel operas (or the parts were sung by baritones) and names like Vinci, Leo and Broschi were footnotes. In addition, the countertenor range rarely went above the G atop the treble clef.

With the release of the 1994 film Farinelli, a whole new audience found interest in the strange exotic sound and phenomenon of the castrato, even if the voice used in the film was a digital composite of mezzo-contralto Ewa Malas-Godlewska and countertenor Derek Lee Ragin. That same year, David Daniels drew international fame as Nero at New York State’s Glimmerglass Festival, repeating it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1996; in 1997 he won the coveted Richard Tucker Award (the first countertenor to do so) and his recording career began that year as well. He introduced the world to a more muscular tone, rounder, more focused, less ‘heady’ and more even from top to bottom. He also added a tone or two to both ends of the scale.

By then the interest in Baroque opera had taken hold and since then it has been raining countertenors. Some have already come and gone — Jochen Kowalski and Brian Asawa

come to mind — while others have become superstars. Most have been altos (the term Deller preferred); lately there are sopranos, both in the tone and range. Philiippe Jaroussky’s very feminine sound is beautiful and backed up with fine focus; Michael Maniaci’s higher range — about a fifth above the ‘norm’ — wanted for pitch accuracy and could be strident; Max-Emanuel Cencic seems superhuman, with what is basically an alto sound that can become fascinatingly ferocious at top. And here we have the young Australian David Hansen, who is sure to cause controversy.

The ‘Rivals’ of the CD’s title are Farinelii, Caffirelli, Carestini and other castrati of the eighteenth century. Hansen’s voice, as far as one can tell on a recording (backed up by some YouTube studying) is a good size and has a decidedly soprano timbre. He can swell a note from a nice pianissimo to forte and add or subtract vibrato . The registers are equalized and the range is stupendous : in a run near the end of Broschi’s ‘Son qual nave’ (from Artaserse) , here performed in a version which includes some of Farinelli’s ornaments, Hansen manages a cascade from a low F sharp up to a high C sharp and almost back around. In the same aria, he takes 178 notes in one 20-second run (I didn’t count them; the statement is in the notes and I listened, awestruck — at 4’37”, by the way) . He never drops a note. It’s dazzling. But one can’t help hearing in the octave leaps up to high A flat (around 3’00”), that those A flats come out vaguely as squawks. He can sustain a high B like Joan Sutherland. The mellow ‘B’ section of the aria exhibits some of the loveliest singing you’ll ever hear from any voice range; the legato is pure, the diction, while not in the Bartoli class, excellent, the knowledge of precisely where the long cantilena is going is exquisitely musical.

The CD opener, from Vinci’s Semiramide riconosciuta (‘In braccio a mille furie’), with brass and strings back-up, is a wild ride, with big leaps and Hansen’s decorations in the da capo are splendid; an aria from the same composer’s Il Medo (‘Sento due flamme in petto’) is a lament with sad oboes; Hansen’s trills are both expressive and lovely. ‘Talor che irato è il vento’ from Leo’s Andromaca (another ‘raging wind and tempestuous sea’ aria) is a brief stunner and one could learn about the art of embellishment listening to Hansen. A sustained B flat near the aria’s close — utterly vibrato-free — will astound many; the coldness of the tone makes it sound almost sharp and those allergic to this kind of aching purity will complain. Indeed, throughout, it’s the brightness of Hansen’s tone that may cause the controversy mentioned above: when he sings in the middle of his range and lower, there is great warmth and sensitivity — ‘Cara sposa’ from Bononcini’s Griselda is filled with sadness and regret. But the upper octave — the ‘money notes’ which make him so special — can be a tad strident. The secret is not to listen to the whole CD — about 76 minutes — in one sitting, but that is as true here as it has been with Pavarotti, Nilsson et al. In brief, Hansen is a miraculous singer with a unique sound, spectacular technique and a strong streak of machismo, when called for, even on high. Those who do not like the countertenor voice in general will not be able to make their usual ‘He sounds like my Aunt Hilda’ excuses; like David Daniels and Cencic, this is a voice backed up by strength and a fierce desire to communicate. I hope to hear much more of Hansen, but wouldn’t mind if he weren’t recorded quite as close-up as he is here. I’ve given short shrift to Alessandro de Marchi and Academia Montis Regalis simply because they are ideal. Most of the arias here are recorded for the first time: lovers of great singing and the Baroque are in for a treat.         

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