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Counter-tenors in Bach’s Vocal Works

Part 1

 

 

Cantatas - m or f altos

Kostas Sarantidis
wrote (February 25, 1998):
<< Ken Edmonds wrote: My favourite is Andreas Scholl. IMHO, God hath not created a purer, more beautiful voice than his. >>
< Ambroz Bajec-Lapajne wrote: My favourite counter-tenor is definitely Michael Chance. >
I agree, Andreas Scholl and Michael Chance are probably the two best male altos in the West today. But what about the East?

Just in the last few days I've become acquainted with the Bach recordings of the Bach Collegium Japan, directed by Masaaki Suzuki, on the BIS label (5 CD's so far released, all early cantatas). The alto on all these recordings is the young Yoshikazu Mera - an extraordinarily beautiful and pure voice. IMHO he is better than Scholl and Chance! He seems to have a bit of a problem around the transition from falsetto to what would be a more regular tenor voice, but I've noticed that fault only in one or two places (in the Messiah recording by these forces).

One of the best examples of male alto singing I have ever heard is on BIS-CD-791 (vol 3 of the Bach Cantata series), the Cantata BWV 54, "Widerstehe doch der Sünde". As I continue to explore this series, I'm sure I'll hear even better examples of this young man's singing. For my money, this series by Suzuki beats the Koopman series! Superb sound and great notes, to go along with the excellent singing and instrumental playing (on original instruments). I'm sold on this series!


Counter-tenors

Robert Murphy
wrote (August 7, 2000):
(To Johan van Veen) Personally, I would take any female altos over male altos in Bach. The males sound like cats trying to pass kidney stones!

Matthew Westphal wrote (August 7, 2000):
(To Robert Murphy) When was the last time you heard any male altos? Which ones?

It's all a matter of taste, of course, but an argument might be made that some male alto soloists of the 1970's and 1980's made sounds like those you describe.

But I think you'd have a very hard time finding people who would agree that David Daniels, Andreas Scholl, Brian Asawa, Daniel Taylor and Bejun Mehta sound like cats trying to pass kidney stones.

In fact, Robert, I'd venture to guess that if you heard a recording of any one of those gentlemen without the singer being identified, you'd think it was a very good female alto singing.

Ryan Michero wrote (August 7, 2000):
(To Robert Murphy) I wouldn't expect to get any sympathetic responses to this statement as even the most reactionary of critics and listeners have accepted that male altos can be fine interpreters of Bach's vocal music. Many may prefer female altos, but it is absolutely certain that Bach did not write his music for them. And certainly Bach would not have written so much wonderful music for alto voice if he expected it to be sung by "cats trying to pass kidney stones".

And as Matthew asked, when was the last time you heard a male alto? Or do you just prefer to just cover your ears and pretend the last thirty years didn't happen?

Patrik Enander wrote (August 8, 2000):
< Robert Murphy wrote: Personally, I would take any female altos over male altos in Bach. The males sound like cats trying to pass kidney stones! >
< Matthew W wrote: When was the last time you heard any male altos? Which ones? (Snip) But I think you'd have a very hard time finding people who would agree that David Daniels, Andreas Scholl, Brian Asawa, Daniel Taylor and Bejun Mehta sound like cats trying to pass kidney stones. >
Or the excellent altos of Herreweghe's Collegium Vocale. To be fair not all men, but Steve Dugardin doesn't sound like a cat.

Robert Murphy wrote (August 8, 2000):
WOW! Glad to know that my "cat" statement has caused such a reaction!

I have following the discussions for the past three weeks with everyone pontificating their views so I thought it was high time I added some ingredients this Bach stew!

Matthew is absolutely right about Daniels, Scholl, Asawa, and Mehta! They absolutely sound great. I have Daniels' Händel Aria collection and own Scholl's Bach Cantata album, and knew of Brian Asawa way back when he was a member of Chanticleer. They do sound great; I was only expressing my own humble opinion.

Ryan, what makes you think I haven't heard what's been going on the past 30 years? I own both complete cantata sets of Rilling, Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, plus many of Richter's cantata recordings. I don't care that Bach didn't write for FEMALE altos, the women weren't allowed to sing in church. As much as I do sincerely appreciate the artistry and sound of these great male altos, in my opinion none of them, IMHO, will EVER match Helen Watts, Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Jessie Norman, or Maureen Forrester. And I know you can give me good argument of why not to prefer female altos, just the way I feel that's all! The world is big enough for both, no reason to sweat it! Just an opinion!

Being a music director at a large Lutheran church in St. Paul, I have had the privilege to direct Bach cantatas in the context of a WORSHIP SERVICE, which, again, IMHO, is the best way to experience the cantatas. Somehow in concert setting it doesn't feel the same to me. Some cantatas work great for concert like BWV 51, 119, 31, 212 among others. It is always amazing to see the theological depth that Bach expresses in the cantatas. I have directed BWV 9, 22, 23, 29, 41, 51, 61, 70, 79, 99, 100, 106, 112, 127, 182, 172, 161. Hopefully this year, I will be able to do BWV 95, 35, and 33!

Well, guys, I hate to hit and run, but I will not be commenting again for about a month on the list, as my life is quite busy now. I am starting a run of 12 West Side Story performances with 50 high school kids at church, plus conducting a 30 piece orchestra, then taking off for a two week vacation back home in San Francisco, and then moving to my new house when I return to the Twin Cities!

Thanks for letting me express my opinion, and I wish nothing but the best for all you! How knows maybe I will call up Scholl, Daniels or Asawa and see if they are interested in singing the part of Anita!

Ryan Michero wrote (August 8, 2000): 19:30
< Robert Murphy wrote: Glad to know that my "cat" statement has caused such a reaction! >
What did you expect? Suppose I said Bach was a hack--I'd brace myself for a few heated responses!

< Matthew is absolutely right about Daniels, Scholl, Asawa, and Mehta! They absolutely sound great. I have Daniels' Händel Aria collection and own Scholl's Bach Cantata album, and knew of Brian Asawa way back when he was a member of Chanticleer. >
Your comments here belie what you wrote in your first posting: "The males sound like cats trying to pass kidney stones!" There were no qualifications of the statement. The implication is that all male altos sound terrible. If you had said "Most males sound like cats trying to pass kidney stones!", I wouldn't have said anything.

< They do sound great, I was only expressing my own humble opinion. >
Expressing your opinion is fine with me. I just don't think you expressed it very well, implying that you thought all male altos sound terrible, which anybody with open ears would tell you is nonsense.

< Ryan, what makes you think I haven't heard what's been going on the past 30 years? I own both complete cantata sets of Rilling, Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, plus many of Richter's cantata recordings. I don't care that Bach didn't write for FEMALE altos, the women weren't allowed to sing in church. As much as I do sincerely appreciate the artistry and sound of these great male altos, in my opinion none of them, IMHO, will EVER match Helen Watts Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Jessie Norman, or Maureen Forrester. And I know you can give me good argument of why not to prefer female altos, just the way I feel that's all! The world is big enough for both, no reason to sweat it! Just an opinion! >
I don't mean to lecture you on why male altos are more suited to Bach than females. I even see your point--I've lately been listening to Janet Baker's BWV 170, whis fabulous. I just thought you were dismissing all male altos.

< Being a music director at a large Lutheran church in St. Paul, I have had the privilege to direct Bach cantatas in the context of a WORSHIP SERVICE, which, again, IMHO, is the best way to experience the cantatas. Somehow in concert setting it doesn't feel the same to me. Some cantatas work great for concert like BWV 51, 119, 31, 212 among others. It is always amazing to see the theological depth that Bach expresses in the cantatas. I have directed BWV 9, 22, 23, 29, 41, 51, 61, 70, 79, 99, 100, 106, 112, 127, 182, 172, 161. Hopefully this year, I will be able to do BWV 95, 35, and 33! >
That's great to hear, and I hope you can provide us with a unique and valuable perspective on these works!

< Well, guys, I hate to hit and run, but I will not be commenting again for about a month on the list, as my life is quite busy now. I am starting a run of 12 West Side Story performances with 50 high school kids at church, plus conducting a 30 piece orchestra, then taking off for a two week vacation back home in San Francisco, and then moving to my new house when I return to the Twin Cities! >
You sound like a "jet-set" conductor to me!

< Thanks for letting me express my opinion, and I wish nothing but the best for all you! How knows maybe I will call up Scholl, Daniels or Asawa and see if they are interested in singing the part of Anita! >
Maybe you would be better served with a Puerto Rican Counter-tenor?

Robert Murphy wrote (August 9, 2000): 1:29
(To Ryan Michero) You are absolutely correct when I should have qualified my statement to say "some" male altos and not imply all male altos! My mistake!

As far as a Puerto Rican Counter-tenor, do you know any I could use? WOW! Wouldn't THAT be something, have two males together as Bernardo and Anita? It would have to be Bernardo and Angelo. Boy that could lead to other things- a gay West Side Story? Tony and Mariano? "Mariano--I just met a boy named Mariano!" A gay West Side Story production for a church, that should cause a "rumble!"

By the way, Ryan, I spent a glorious week at Westminster Choir College in Princeton back on July 2-8 attending lectures, studying and singing the Bach Matthäus Passion, ending with a free performance in the college Chapel, SRO! The orchestra was one to a part! I was in heaven in all week! I think the Matthäus is better than the Johannes, but I love the Johannes more than the Matthäus! However, the music was so sublime, I was literally transported!

Gotta run! Stay cool, boy!

P.S. When mezzos perform "trouser" roles such as Octavian, Cherubino, what do you call it when a male appears in a dress? Would that be a drag role?

Matthew Westphal wrote (August 9, 2000): 1:57
< Robert Murphy wrote: As far as a Puerto Rican Counter-tenor, do you know any I could use? WOW! Wouldn't THAT be something, have two males together as Bernardo and Anita? It would have to be Bernardo and Angelo. Boy that could lead to other things- a gay West Side Story? Tony and Mariano? "Mariano--I just met a boy named Mariano!" A gay West Side Story production for a church, that should cause a "rumble!" >
I think that must have been done somewhere already.

< By the way, Ryan, I spent a glorious week at Westminster Choir College in Princeton back on July 2-8 attending lectures, studying and singing the Bach Matthäus Passion, ending with a free performance in the college Chapel, SRO! The orchestra was one to a part! I was in heaven in all week! I think the Matthäus is better than the Johannes, but I love the Johannes more than the Matthäus! However, the music was so sublime, I was literally transported! >
Literally transported? Where to?

< P.S. When mezzos perform "trouser" roles such as Octavian, Cherubino, what do you call it when a male appears in a dress? >
A travesty role.

Probably the most common instances of this are the 17th century roles of elderly nurse (usually for high tenor) and sorceress (often for baritone, sometimes for tenor).

The French version of the term, "travesti" or "en travesti" (adverbial phrase), can be used for either male-to-female or female-to-male roles.

By the way, this past spring, in the San Francisco Opera's production of "The Rake's Progress," Brian Asawa sang the role of Baba the Turk. (Quite successfully, I'm told.)

PS -- Shouldn't we be discussing this on the Early Music Recordings list?

Robert Sherman wrote (August 10, 2000): 15:06
Generally I agree with Robert Murphy re male vs. female altos. It's a question of a cold sound vs. a warm sound. There is no shortage of male altos with fine technique and musicianship, but none of them do anything for me emotionally. IMO male altos can be compared to synthesizer music -- intellectually fascinating but just not where I go for gratification.

I also have a lot of difficulty relating to altos -- male or female -- doing heroic male roles, as is commonly done with Händel's Julius Caesar. The height of disconnect was a performance of that opera I saw recently in which Ptolemy, a lecherous playboy, is trying to put the moves on Julia, a virtuous woman. Julia was an alto but Ptolemy was a male soprano. Weird! And Caesar himself was played by a female alto who had learned well how to walk and move like a strong athletic man -- but why not go all the way and use a bass-baritone? Terfel would be perfectly suited to the role.

I'm glad Robert included Helen Watts in his list of top baroque altos -- she is frequently overlooked. I'd add to that list Hertha Töpper -- her "Es ist Vollbracht" from the St. John is one of the most moving arias I've heard anywhere.

I recognize that none of the above is politically correct, and probably historically incorrect as well. So be it.

Robert Murphy wrote (August 10, 2000): 17:45
(To Robert Sherman) Thanks for your support, Bob! Yes, I just got the Richter Johannes Passion, and I was really moved by Hertha Töpper. Generally, I really love Richter's recordings of the big Bach pieces except for his last Matthäus Passion. I was greatly disappointed in it despite having a great "cast" of Mathis, Baker, Schreier, and Dieskau, it didn't move me at all! I greatly prefer his earlier 1958 recording. I don't think the solo singing on his Christmas Oratorio can be beat - Janowitz, Ludwig, Wunderlich (what a voice!). Even though, Richter was historically correct, in my opinion his love and devotion to Bach shines through convincingly! As I have grow older, I have come to appreciate the older generations performance more and more. I just bought a used copy of Jochum's Matthäus passion and Christmas Oratorio. I was surprised that his tempos are not much slower than today's performances, plus he has great singers in Ameling. Fassbender, Ridderbusch, etc.

At this bach workshop I went to at Princeton, Robin Leaver played an old Koussevitzky/Boston Symphony recording that took place in 1939. I was bowled over by the tempos. Gardiner was not that much faster! In fact taking a cursory look at the timings, it came within 5 minutes of Gardiner. I guess just because it was the 1930's did not necessarily mean slow tempos. However, Mr. Leaver, did play a performance from 1941 with Bruno Walter and New York Philharmonic. OH, MY GOD! The opening chorus tool SO SSSSSLLLLLLLLOOOOOOOWWWWW! The first chord took about 10 seconds. Watching molasses sap running slow, a tree would have been faster!

Talk to you guys next month! I gotta get cool and take in some rumbles for the next few weeks! Bye for now!

Robert Murphy wrote (August 10, 2000): 17:52
P.S. I forgot about your Guilio Cesare! Yes it does seem unseemly for those things to happen on stage because of the vocal ranges. However, I think some strong mezzos can bring it off. I saw Tatiana Troyanos do a performance back in the summer of 1982 at the San Francisco Opera with Valerie Masterston as Cleopatra, Sarah Walker as Cornelia and Delia Wallis as Sexto. James Bowman was Ptolomeo. He was AWFUL! His voice sounded like a cat…well anyway. He just didn't sound good at all. If Scholl or Daniels or Mehta were around, then I know it would have been a different story. Troyanos really pulled it off su, I thought. The performance was conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras and done in English.

Another one who was good in the role is Jennifer Larmore on her Harmonia recording with Rene Jacobs, she sounds convincing. So does Janet Baker. I guess it all depends who the mezzo is who can bring it off.

Really gotta kick it this time! Bye guys, until next month!

Ben Mullins wrote (August 10, 2000): 18:32
(To Robert Sherman) A male soprano? As in a castrato? I didn't know they still made those! This puts me in mind of the anecdote where Stravinsky (I think it was Stravinsky) was asked by the pope what the Catholic Church could do for music, to which Igor replied: "Give us back castratos!"

Matthew Westphal wrote (August 11, 2000): 4:05
< Robert Sherman wrote: I also have a lot of difficulty relating to altos -- male or female -- doing heroic male roles, as is commonly done with Händel's Julius Caesar. The height of disconnect was a performance of that opera I saw recently in which Ptolemy, a lecherous playboy, is trying to put the moves on Julia, a virtuous woman. Julia was an alto but Ptolemy was a male soprano. Weird! And Caesar himself was played by a female alto who had learned well how to walk and move like a strong athletic man -- but why not go all the way and use a bass-baritone? Terfel would be perfectly suited to the role. >
Why not go all the way and use a studious-looking, high-strung young tenor as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos? Bostridge would be perfectly suited to the role.

Why not? For the same reason, I should think, that we don't go all the way and cast randy young tenors or baritones as Cherubino and Octavian.

< I recognize that none of the above is politically correct, and probably historically incorrect as well. So be it. >
Careful, Bob. My friends in the Thought Police will deport you to re-education camp and force you to take seminars in Gender Studies.

Robert Sherman wrote (August 11, 2000): 14:37
< Matthew Westphal wrote: Why not go all the way and use a studious-looking, high-strung young tenor as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos? Bostridge would be perfectly suited to the role.
Why not? For the same reason, I should think, that we don't go all the way and cast randy young tenors or baritones as Cherubino and Octavian. >
And that reason is?

Galina Kolomietz wrote (August 11, 2000):
(To Robert Sherman) *** And that reason is, IMHO: fidelity to the music and rejection of stereotypes. If a stereotype is that important (a fat woman as a heroic Cesare - Oh, horror!), then why don't let them lip-synch? Some fat and ugly thing would be singing behind the curtain, and a hunky lad would be lip-synching up on the stage - a perfect composite Giulio Cesare. I'm sure the likes of Britney Spears could provide valuable advice on how to lip-synch.


Counter-tenor repertoire

Elly Compton
wrote (February 2, 2001):
My lovely counter-tenor fiance, Nick, has got a recital on 4th March. It's just a little one for the college music society, but the standard is surprisingly high and it will only be his second time of singing counter-tenor in public (he only realised that he is a counter-tenor rather than a tenor with a loud falsetto about 9 months ago, and still sings tenor in our chapel choir). He's asked me to help him find repertoire, and as well as making my own suggestions (particularly Schubert Lieder, as David Daniels does!) I was wondering if anyone here could offer some suggestions?

To give you some details about the voice, he's rather a high counter-tenor (is this always the case with former tenors who were good trebles?), definitely with a high-ish mezzo range rather than that of an alto. His break with his tenor voice is about D or E just above middle C. He can sing soprano B on a good day (our teacher thinks he'll be singing the Allegri "Miserere" again before long!!), and A/Bb on an average day but isn't yet confidant enough to go beyond F or G for the purposes of this recital.

In terms of vocal quality he is definitely a mezzo, or even a soprano, rather than an alto. He is a good musician and has proper vibrato and a powerful, sonorous voice. But as he is new to the voice and is used to his much quieter and less rich tenor instrument, he occasionally lacks both control and confidence, so at this stage he shouldn't sing anything too difficult in terms of diaphram support. That said, he's making the Spirit in "Dido" currently look like a doddle, which it isn't, and he doesn't want anything that doesn't challenge him at all...

In terms of the content of the songs, he is an extremely good and gentle person but a very good actor, and he loves playing aggressive villains and particularly bad-tempered heroes! He'd also be glad to find one or two gentle, touchingly beautiful songs for contrast.

So - any suggestions? thanks in advance!

Mega Mole (The Official Enrico Basilica : Chocolate rix in thy tum) wrote (February 3, 2001):
< Elly Compton wrote: To give you some details about the voice, he's rather a high counter-tenor (is this always the case with former tenors who were good trebles?) >
Nope - look at Michael Chance or Robin Blaze. David Daniels is a case in point, though.

< In terms of vocal quality he is definitely a mezzo, or even a soprano, rather than an alto. He is a good musician and has proper vibrato and a powerful, sonorous voice. But as he is new to the voice and is used to his much quieter and less rich tenor instrument, he occasionally lacks both control and confidence, so at this stage he shouldn't sing anything too difficult in terms of diaphram support. >
First up, he's a very high singer. Our traditional counter-tenor repertoire wouldn't suit him; I'm very much an alto (albeit a highish one), with a very "typical" counter-tenor range of G below middle C to F# at the top of the treble stave. In recital, I'd feel comfortable only in the Ab up to Eb range unless the high note was loud and I was warm.

He should NOT sing anything too extreme in terms of range. Knock a fourth off the top (so say F max) and maybe a tone or so off the bottom.

In future, he SHOULD develop a low (comparatively speaking) falsetto - what Peter Giles calls the pharyngeal register. It is going to hamper him if he has to change gear at D or E and the colours of his root voice are very different to his falsetto. All the great alto arias will sound decidedly odd.

As for repertoire, yes; Lieder, Purcell songs (the low soprano ones should be within range for him), lute-song (nice easy compass, at least for us altos). Nothing too extreme in terms of range. Perhaps some easy Vivaldi, too.

Händel, with its runs, and Bach, with runs and intervals, can come later.

I'm within range of Cambridge; shame I didn't have more notice, or I'd have turned up.
-
* MegaMole, The Official Enrico Basilica : Chocolate rix in thy tum *
* http://www.countertenor.demon.co.uk/index.html Filks, Liff, Stuff *

Robert H. Rogers wrote (February 3, 2001):
(To Elly Compton) Counter tenors seem to be growing larger as a voice solo category than they are in England where most of them sing alto in choirs of men and boys of which, very few are left.

As for repertoire, there is a vast amount. Purcell was quite prolific. For instance his "Music for awhile" is very haunting. A lot of the repertoire that Daniels sings now is not written precisely for counter tenor, but he is so good that he makes it work like it was writtenfor a counter tenor. A young person should be working mainly on technique and less on performing until the voice is solid. If not, the future could be difficult.

I have known several counter tenors over the past 50 years. They are very interesting as personalities and as performers.

Nicholas Bloomfield wrote (February 3, 2001):
< Robert H. Rogers wrote: EH? Pardon Me?
Counter-tenors seem to be growing larger as a voice solo category than they are in England where most of them sing alto in choirs of men and boys of which, very few are left. >

Umm! The whole of the country's Cathedrals (nearly) consists of Counter-tenors making up the Alto line. That makes an awfullot of Counter-tenors! (most places have at least four, though some have only two)

True, in the 'ordinary' Church choirs we are harder to find, since there are still very few choirboys who go on to singing as an alto when their voices break, and these tend to go on to Cathedral singing.

The other thing that I have noticed is that an awful lot of Organists seem to have either Sung Alto in the past or are capable of singing it, but since they cannot sing and play at the same time, they play!

< As for repertoire, there is a vast amount. Purcell was quite prolific. For instance his "Music for awhile" is very haunting. A lot of the repertoire that Daniels sings now is not written precisely for counter tenor, but he is so good that he makes it work like it was written for a counter tenor. >
Very true, there is a lot of repertoire, but one has to be careful about the tessitura in these works. Even if like myself and my namesake, you can sing up to a top "C" above the treble stave, you don't want to go above F or G very often in your general work otherwise you may wreck things (especially if you're voice is not settled)

< A young person should be working mainly on technique and less on performing until the voice is solid. If not, the future could be difficult. >
I partly agree, and partly disagree. There is a lot that can be gained from performing, especially if you are careful about what you plan to sing.

When I started singing counter-tenor properly about a year and a half ago, I had to undergo an audition for singing lessons at my music college. I sang the Alto Aria "But who may abide?" from Messiah. Sure, as a musician I made a pretty good stab at singing it in a pleasing manner, and my Cadenza took me up to a top "F" - but my singing technique was far from ready for this piece.

I think that if you plan your repertoire carefully, it's ok to perform.

< I have known several counter tenors over the past 50 years. They are very interesting as personalities and as performers. >
LOL! So wonderfully penned. However, we have to be - there is still a lot of prejudice out there to men who have high voices - it seems to me (and I HAVE to make 100% sure to everyone that I'm not accusing you of this sine you haven't said anything of the sort! :-) ) that Counter-tenors are presumed gay until otherwise proven straight! (As a straight counter-tenor I have to say that I know more non-gay than gay ones!)

I have to just say though that I feel that modern day counter-tenors experience something of what the original Castrati experienced... a kind of phobia to men who seemingly blur the distinctions between male and female by singing so very high...

And Elly... say good luck to Nick. He sounds like a good singer.


Counter tenors

Dirk Dobbelaere
wrote (February 8, 2001):
An increasing number of Bach recordings (in particular by Koopman and Herreweghe) feature counter-tenors. I wonder what drives people to replace those wonderful female alt voices by counter-tenors? There may be historical reasons, but as far as I am concerned, despite repeated attempts to 'acquire the taste', I simply fail to enjoy the sound of them; at least up till now.

Si Struoghair wrote (February 8, 2001):
(To Dirk Dobbelaere) I, on the other hand, can't stand the sound of female altos, and would prefer counter-tenors any day of the week, both in chorus and for solos. Perhaps it's because I'm a Purcell fan...

Chris Hampson wrote (February 8, 2001):
Maybe one should use counter-tenors for historical reasons, but on the other hand, I'd give anything to hear Sally Bruce-Payne sing Bach - she is sensational. She is the Emma Kirkby of the alto (or mezzo-soprano) world! The one counter-tenor who I do admire is Johnathon Peter Kenny from the televised, semi-staged St Matthew passion recording (Conductor Paul Goodwin, artistic director - Jonathon Miller, I think...).

Dirk Dobbelaere wrote (February 8, 2001):
(To Chris Hampson) Thanks for the tip. I'll keep on trying... I may have to!

Jaime Jean wrote (February 9, 2001):
(Dirk Dobbelaere) I agree. I tend to buy HIP recordings and, for historical reasons, they tend to include counter-tenors but I don't think they match the beauty of a female voice.

Although historically interesting, the counter-tenor is the result of artificial, fanatical, even illegal practices, and is inherently unnatural.

Michael Haslam wrote (February 9, 2001):
(To Jaime Jean) Uhh? Are you sure you are not confusing counter-tenor with castrato?

Enrico Bauer wrote (February 9, 2001):
< Dirk Dobbelaere wrote: An increasing number of Bach recordings (in particular by Koopman and Herreweghe) feature counter-tenors. >
Don't forget Gardiner and - the beginning - Harnoncourt/Leonhardt! But all of them recorded one or the other cantata that will please you - Koopman with Elisabeth von Magnus, Gardiner with Sara Mingardo...

< I wonder what drives people to replace those wonderful female alt voices by counter-tenors? >
Historically it's the other way around: a female alt is the replacement.

< There may be historical reasons, >
They're not so strong. Sure - there's the "Mulier taceat in ecclesia." but on the other hand Bach himself used femal voices for secular cantatas. Today he without a doubt he would take the best voice For us it is more a question of taste. I prefer the altus.

< but as far as I am concerned, despite repeated attempts to 'acquire the taste', I simply fail to enjoy the sound of them; at least up till now. >
Probably you never heard Andreas Scholl. :-)

Zachary Uram wrote (February 10, 2001):
(To Si) I agree! shreeking banshees! :)

N. Hopkins wrote (February 13, 2001):
(To Zachary Uram) As a female alto, I agree. Just awful to listen to (even though Andreas Scholl is good, just like a good female impersonater) and horrible to see the few alto parts go to what I consider to be freaks.

Michael J. Haslam wrote (February 13, 2001):
(To N. Hopkins) Do you think Henry Purcell considered male altos to be freaks? I'm not convinced that JS Bach had the adult male alto voice in mind when writing his alto parts (quite possibly late-breaking boys (16-17 year-olds) were used), but in the English tradition I have no doubt that full- or part-time falsettists were the norm then as they are now. There is nothing freakish about using the falsetto voice, pop singers do it frequently as do most trained female sopranos. OTOH I'd like more women to emancipate their "chest" voices but that's another thread and probably another ng :-)

Zachary Uram wrote (February 13, 2001):
(To Michael Haslam) what do u mean "chest" voice? this isnt modern opera! LOL

Charles Francis wrote (February 13, 2001):
(To Michael Haslam) It is interesting to compare the different approaches taken by Parrott and Rifkin in their respective "One Voice Per Part" recordings of the B-Minor Mass:

Andrew Parrott uses a boy since "The present recording aims to adopt the conventions of a hypothetical performance by Bach himself at Leipzig, sometimes augmenting the solo voices with extra singers (ripienists) as was the composer's practice on occasion. Another important feature is the use of boy altos, rather than counter-tenors (which Bach never employed at Leipzig)."

But, Joshua Rifkin uses a counter-tenor since "The electoral chapel, on the other hand, appears to have had only adult singers: castratos and women as sopranos - although it remains uncertain whether the women sang in church as well as in the opera - and, with one exception, male altos". Rifkin continues "This comes as close as modern practice allows to the forces most historically appropriate for the Missa; and given the lack of any manifest connection between the rest of the Mass and the choir at Leipzig, we have seen no reason, either historical or artistic, to change to boys midway through the work."

No doubt, the conclusions of Georg von Dadelsen and Stauffer are of some relevance.

Michael J. Haslam wrote (February 13, 2001):
(To Zachary Uram) Didn't mean to make you laugh :-() "Chest" is a very common term in the UK for the lower/lowest (depending on your school of voice production!) female register, as used for the lowest notes the role of Carmen, and by the full-voiced Bulgarian folk singers and most "belty" female pop singers.

James Goodzeit wrote (February 13, 2001):
(To Michael Haslam) In Bach's time 16-17 year olds voices breaking would have been EARLY. There really is no modern equivalent to an 18 year-old boy soprano or alto.

Zachary Uram wrote (February 14, 2001):
< Michael Haslam wrote: Didn't mean to make you laugh :-() "Chest" is a very common term in the UK for the > lower/lowest (depending on your school of voice production!) female register, as used > for the lowest notes of the role of Carmen, and by the full-voiced Bulgarian folk > singers and most "belty" female pop singers. >
Ah, I see.

<< Do you think Henry Purcell considered male altos to be freaks? >>
< Any response to this, Zachary? >
I don't know enough about Purcell but I have heard some nice Baroque pieces using male altos. A bad female alto or a bad male alto is still bad. I think we should dismiss all male altos as "freaks".

I meant we should NOT dismiss all male altos as freaks. :) >


Contaltos

Roar Myrheim wrote (April 26, 2001):
< Tomas Braatz wrote, in his Review of Cantata BWV 31: Leusink: So far I have only heard about three or four of the cantatas from this set. I must admit that I am having great difficulty coming to terms with the choral sections whenever I hear them. From the very beginning, I noticed an element that disturbed me sufficiently, in order to 'get under my skin.' For that reason I have listened to this recording at least six or seven times for over a week now. (I know that that does not compare favourably with Aryeh's thirty times, but at least it is a good beginning.) I had hoped that I might become accustomed to a 'new' sound that I might eventually, over a period of time, begin to like, but to no avail. In my frustration, as I noticed that my negative feelings about this recording were increasing, rather than subsiding, I decided to investigate the cause of my problem: the Buwalda-type singing that simply did not blend well with the other voices. Compared to the other voices in the choir, this type of voice overshadowed the others in volume and with a somewhat unpleasant characteristic that I can only specify as forced or very constricted. There was something in this type of voice that sounded more like the yelping of American Western cowboys. I then read about falsetto singing in Sweden ('kulning') where the muscular apparatus of the larynx is very much constricted. "Gesänge dieser Art verbinden häufig Viehlockrufe mit freischweifend melismatischer oder auch liedhafter Melodik und stehen dem alpinen Kühreigen nahe." MGG 12,363 ="Songs of this type frequently combine the sounds used to call animals with freely moving melismatic passages or with song melodies that closely resemble an Alpine cow-herd's melody." Yodeling also makes use of this type of falsetto singing. " >

I agree with Mr. Braatz about the unpleasant sound of some of Leusink's choir movements. First of all I wonder if the altos are young boys, or grown up contraltos, or a mixture? Mr. Braatz calls this falsetto singing, and maybe it is. I think a good contralto will sing with a chest voice, which is round and full, and rich with high harmonics. A falsetto singer will produce a thin, harsh sound, with little harmonics (almost sinusoidal, according to Encyclopaedia Brittannica). Do any of you know more about this?

Jim Groeneveld wrote (April 26, 2001):
(To Roar Myrheim) I can tell you about the practice in the Holland Boys Choir. The altos are formed by boys from 12 or 13 years on; the oldest ones being in their 20’s already. The younger ones had been sopranos initially but couldn't reach their high tones anymore. They sing their alto part with their brest voice (AFAIK), not too loud in their lower ranges. The older ones are boys, which voices alreay have broken, but who continued to sing their high parts; and apparently it is possible to keep on singing as a counter-tenor that way. They can sing tenor or bass parts as well (using their brest voice), but they use their falsetto voice (I think) for the alto part. Most of them have been in the choir for a long time, starting as a soprano. The difference in sound between the (individual) boys is remarkable. My son started as the first type at the age of 11. Now he is 13 (about 1.85 m tall) and somewhere in between both types I think.

Robert Sherman wrote (April 26, 2001):
(To Roar Myrheim) If you do a spectral analysis of singer's sounds, you find that invariably the best singers' harmonics are concentrated in three groups, called formants.

The lower formant ("chest tones") are perceived as depth, velvet, warmth, richness.

The middle formant is perceived as vowel sound -- it's striking listen to a Bjoerling recording while watching the spectrum -- knowing nothing about formant theory he nevertheless has dramatically, almost machine-like, vowel spectrum consistency, with each vowel sound invariably producing its characteristic middle formant. Lesser singers -- who sound as if they're mumbling -- lack this painstaking middle formant characteristic.

The upper formant (incorrectly called "head tones") provides brilliance and carrying power.

Good singers have always intuitively worked very hard to concentrate their power in these three formants, and to balance the three in a pleasing way. (Very poor singers, e.g. Barbra Streisand, have their harmonics spread helter-skelter across a dozen or so formants.)

I have heard demonstrations in which a skillful singer, at will, shifts the balance among the three formants. Suppressing the third and exaggerating the first formant produces a dark, woofy, unfocused, covered sound.

Suppressing the first formant and exaggerating the third produces a thin, hard, cold sound. While I haven't seen a spectral analysis to confirm this, I expect this is what falsetto (counter-tenor) singers do, and why I am bothered by their sound.

Sybrand Bakker wrote (April 26, 2001):
(To Jim Groeneveld) Just a few comments

I happen to know Rebecca Stewart, American musicologist, working as head of the Early Music Department at the Tilburg Conservatory. From the first time I met her (way back in 1984) until now, she has always been stating that men forget to use their head/falsetto voice. I'm not necessarily a counter-tenor, I'm baritone (and according to her all untrained voices sing baritone), and she had me singing the altus of a Josquin mass for an entire weekend and I managed! (At that time I mutated almost 25 years before). The secret appears to be you need to make the switch from chest to head/falsetto voice much lower (according to my experience at a), and if you do that reaching higher regions becomes much easier.

So it is her belief any man who start to train and use his head voice, can at least sing counter-tenor, and sometimes even soprano (In 1984 we had Chanticleer at the conference, with grown-up (20+) male sopranos)

Probably the few male professional altos we have are singing in exactly the same fashion, although according to Rebecca most of them sing with too much chest.



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Last update: ýJune 22, 2004 ý01:23:42