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Half-Voice - Part 2

 

 

Continue from Part 1

'mezzovoci’ or ‘demi voix

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 13, 2003):
Johann Friedrich Agricola, one of Bach’s students published an instruction book on singing “Anleitung zur Singkunst” (Berlin, 1757) in which he gives details on voices and the art of singing. We can assume that many, if not all, of the ideas presented here would be in accordance with those which Bach held on this subject.

Agricola speaks of “natürliche Stimmen” [“natural voices”] as being an ideal which is rather infrequent in occurrence. More broadly defined, Agricola sees almost every normal individual as having a ‘natural voice,’ but specifically a ‘natural voice,’ as he sees it, is one that has an extended range (more than just an octave or so) with strength, beauty, clarity equally distributed over this range. [Kathleen Ferrier might be cited here as an example of such a voice.] Although most voices are capable of being trained and improved, only certain ones that submit to consistent training and practice under the guidance of a wise (musically experienced {one that should also have been a vocal soloist}) teacher or coach can even begin to approach the capabilities of a ‘natural voice’ with extended range. Such a voice is endowed by nature with a beautiful voice which will benefit from coaching, but will not require the more arduous training required of others who aspire to become vocal soloists.

Such singers (those not gifted with a ‘natural voice’ with extended range) need to learn many things, among which is how to extend the ranges of their voices upwards and downwards. The latter extensions are characterized by Agricola as containing ‘falsetto’ notes or tones. Agricola admits that even ‘natural’ voices, such as those he extols, can produce some ‘falsetto’ notes, but they do not have to depend on them as the other voices do where the ‘falsetto’ range is incorporated into the voice range. Much time is spent on making a smooth, almost unnoticeable transition from the ‘normal’ voice into the ‘falsetto’ range(s): “Es ist aber die Kunst and der natürliche Vortheil derjenigen, deren Stimmen durchgehends egal klingen“(p. 37) [„It is a matter concerning the artistry of the individual and the natural advantage which such an individual may possess that the voices of that type have a completely even sound throughout their entire vocal range.”] The word ‘egal’ (‘equal,’ consistently having the same, even quality of sound over an entire range) is the same word that Bach used to describe the ideal, uniform sound that he listened for when judging various stops on an organ. The problem with ‘falsetto’ tones created by the voice is, according to Agricola, that they are noticeably different in quality and volume. This commonly occurs and must be remedied if it is possible to do so: “Die hohen Stimmen aber, welche der Tiefe gar zu sehr nachsinken wollen, stehen ausser dem, daß man ihre tiefen Töne nicht gut hören kann, noch in Gefahr, durch das allzu öftere gewaltsame Ausdehnen ihrer Luftröhre, die ganze Stimme zu verderben“ (p. 37) [„The high voices {in their range – here Agricola is referring to sopranos as opposed to mezzo-sopranos or altos, or baritones as opposed to true basses} which tend to lose all too much volume in the low part of their ranges, in addition to the fact that you can not hear their low notes very well, are also in danger of violently expanding their windpipes/tracheas, by which process they can ruin their voices entirely.”]

Agricola also speaks of “Kopfstimmen” (‘voce di testa’) vs. “Bruststimmen” (‘voce di petto’) [‘head-’produced vs. ‘chest-‘produced voices]: “Bey manchen Kopfstimmen scheint, bey den geschwinden Läufen, wenn sie dieselben auch noch so geschwind ausführen, doch immer etwas am Feuer der Ausführung zu mangeln. Sie geben jeden geschwinden Ton gar zu weichlich und matt an“ (p. 33) [„It appears that in the case of many a ‚head’ voice there is always a lack of a certain amount of ‘fire’ in the execution particularly of fast runs, no matter how fast they may be performed. Each fast note is executed much to soft/weak and feebly”] Agricola further states on p. 28: “Ich kenne eine Sängerin, welche ganz leicht, mit gleicher Stärke und Reinigkeit der Töne, von ungestrichenen b bis ins dreygeschrichene e geht.” [„I know {and have heard} a female singer who is capable of singing all the way from a ‚b’ below middle ‚c’ to an ‘e’ three octaves higher while maintaining the same level of volume and purity of sound on each note.”]

Regarding male falsettists (counter-tenors, altos, sopranos – the latter two after their voice change, if they had one) Agricola states: “Einige erwachsene Mannspersonen haben, wenn sie singen, nichts als lauter Falsetttöne; und diese nennet man eigentlich ‘Falsettisten.’ Die tiefern Töne werden diesen gemeiniglich sauerer, und sind schwächer.“ p. 35 [„Some adult male singers produce nothing but falsetto tones {throughout their entire range}, and these singers are called ‚falsettists.’ The lower notes in their vocal range are generally annoying and are weaker in volume.“]

A vocal exercise recommended by Tosi, whose book Agricola is translating and commenting on, is singing ‘solfeggios’: “Bey diesem Solfeggiren, suche er den Schüler nach und nach die hohen Töne gewinnen zu lassen: damit derselbe, vermittelst der Uebung, einen so weiten Umfang der Töne erlange als nur möglich ist. Doch beobachte er hierbey, daß, je höher die Töne sind, je sanfter sie angegeben werden müssen: um das Kreischen zu vermeiden.“ (p. 18) [„As the vocal instructor has the vocal student sing solfeggios, he should allow the student to master the high notes little by little so that the student, using this exercise, can a obtain as wide a range as possible. However, in doing so, he should pay attention to the fact that the notes should be sung more gently the higher they are in order to avoid screaming.”]

“…so suchet er [der Gesangslehrer] nicht allein ihm [dem Schüler] das Falsett zu verschaffen; sondern er läßt auch nichts unversuchet, damit dasselbe mit der natürlichen Stimme auf eine solche Art vereiniget werde, daß man eins vom andern nicht unterscheiden könne. Denn wenn diese Vereinigung nicht vollkommen ist: so hat die Stimme einen verschiedenen Laut, oder (wie die Wälschen sagen) verschiedene Register, und verliert folglich ihre Schönheit.“ (p. 21) [„the vocal teacher will not only attempt to help the student obtain and make use of his falsetto voice, he will also leave no stone unturned in trying to unify this falsetto voice with the natural voice in such a way that you will not be able to tell the difference between them. For if this unification (a merging of voices) is not perfect, then the voice will have different voice qualities [and volume], or to use the Italian word for this, different registers, and, as a result, the voice will lose its beauty.] As an example of this, there are numerous opera singers who present these differing registers/qualities quite unabashedly in the same musical selection: Cecilia Bartoli, in her fairly recent recording of Vivaldi arias, exhibits these characteristics that would have been soundly criticized by Tosi/Agricola and, most likely, Bach as well.

Regarding any trembling or vibrato in a voice, Tosi/Agricola state the following on p. 47: “Der Unterweiser lasse auch seinen Untergebenen die Noten fest aushalten lernen, so, daß dabey die Stimme nicht zittere und nicht hin und her wanke. Wenn er, beym Anfange, die Noten von zween Tacten, (die sogenannten Breven) dazu brauchet: so wird der Nutzen desto größer seyn. Denn widrigenfalls wird die Lust, welche die meisten Anfänger haben die Stimme zu bewegen, und die Mühe welche es kostet, mit derselben fest auszuhalten, verursachen, daß auch dieser Schüler sich angewöhnet, nicht mehr die Stimme lange auf einem Tone erhalten zu können; und er wird ohne Zweifel den Fehler annehmen, mit dem Tone immer hin und her zu flattern: nach Art derer, die mit dem übelsten Geschmacke singen.“ [„The voice instructor must have his student learn how to hold the long notes steadily so that the voice, while holding the note, will not tremble or move up and down {back and forth.} If, in the beginning, the student needs to sing notes lasting for 2 beats (measures) (the so-called breves), then the benefit/good results of doing so will be all the greater. For otherwise the pleasure which most beginners feel when moving the voice about in this way as opposed to the effort that must be expended in holding onto a note steadily (without wavering), will cause this student to form a habit of not being able to hold onto a single note/tone steadily and then rather, without a doubt, accept the wrong way of allowing the voice to flutter back and forth constantly – this according to the manner adopted by those who sing in the worst possible taste.”]

It is quite clear from the above that Agricola is speaking of ‘mezzovoci’ or ‘demi voix’ as voices that do not fit the ideal type that Bach would have envisioned. It is a reality that existed in Bach’s time as well. Simply compare the boy soprano in the Ramin recording of the soprano aria in BWV 72 with Ruth Holton's weak low range in the same piece. The difference should become apparent. There is no reason avoid terms (and invoke P.C.) that describe the actual state of things. It is very possible that Bach would not have used many of the voices that we currently hear, simply because they had not been sufficiently or properly trained and/or because they were ‘vocally challenged’ by Mother Nature and, as a result, unsuitable for Bach’s own performances.

Hugo Saldias wrote (Aapril 13, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] Thimes change things like playing music and or singing change too. Just look at how conductors dress for a concert: Rilling and Von Karajan laved the sweater all the way up to their necks. A picture of Straube and Schweitzer in the stops of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig shows them in a 3 piece with bow ties. The way Agricola sung is not the way people sing today and the same applies to all other daily chores. Bringing the past to show how Bach music should be played today is not a real thing to do. Why original instruments orchestras do not wear wigs when playing?

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 14, 2003):
< Thomas Braatz wrote: (...) It is quite clear from the above that Agricola is speaking of ‘mezzovoci’ or ‘demi voix’ as voices that do not fit the ideal type that Bach would have envisioned. It is a reality that existed in Bachâ?Ts time as well. Simply compare the boy soprano in the Ramin recording of the soprano aria in BWV 72 with Ruth Holton's weak low range in the same piece. The difference should become apparent. There is no reason avoid terms (and invoke P.C.) that describe the actual state of things. It is very possible that Bach would not have used many of the voices that we currently hear, simply because they had not been sufficiently or properly trained and/or because they were ‘vocally challenged’ by Mother Nature and, as a result, unsuitable for Bach’s own performances. >
A couple of questions:

(1) Tom, have you yourself ever taken voice lessons, working on your own blend of the registers, and the modification of vowels, and the other things that trained singers do?

(2) As you almost surely know, at least half the women on this planet spend most of their time singing in "head voice" (a nicer-sounding term than "falsetto") rather than "chest voice"; why is it thoroughly acceptable for them to do so, while it is (for some listeners) less acceptable for men to do so? Is it not manly enough, or what?

(3) This morning, like every Sunday, I sang along with the hymns and sang all the parts from bass to tenor to alto, varying my choice per stanza to get to know all those different melodies in expression of the words. Sometimes I also sing soprano, in the notated range. It's really not that hard to do, after a term of voice lessons, and at least 15 years of singing in choirs, and working on it myself, and from years of accompanying other people's voice lessons.... My singing is not of soloist quality, but I get by; anything from about the E at the bottom of the bass staff to the E at the top of the treble staff, I can get out some reasonably intelligible sound on it (most comfortably in that middle octave, of course): three octaves. But, according to your descriptions and your various terms "half-voice", "demi-voice", "mezzavoce", "vocally challenged", usw, usw, usw, it seems I'm damned forever, simply because my voice isn't a very loud one (never was, never will be); and I wouldn't be allowed to sing in Bach's own performances, according to you. Tell me, sir: how does this make me feel?

(4) Think of singers who really are of soloist quality, but who have voices quieter than those of (say) Jon Vickers or Joan Sutherland; and who sing sensitively and well whether it's Bach or something else. They too are damned by your terms, and some of them are trying to make a real career as singers, no thanks to the demeaning pronouncements from you that can be read on the Internet as reviews of their work. How do you think this makes them feel?

(5) My original question remains: you've shown us Agricola, Tosi, and the other stuff here, which is helpful, but you still haven't shown that your terms "demi-voice" and "mezzavoce type" usw usw usw are anything other than inventions of your own! My objection is to the way you so glibly categorize people's voices into these LABELS of your own devising, so you can dismiss them as unworthy! Whenever I or anyone else challenges you on your terms, you just dodge it by making up another one. When will this dodging end, such that you will stop using ANY of this type of labels? The "actual state of things" (as you say) is that you are using labels, it comes across as bigotry, and that is what is not "P.C." (Politically Correct) here...the tone with which you use labels. (Just as bad as racist or homophobic or other similarly bigoted remarks, in my opinion...the language a person uses betrays the way s/he is really thinking!) Obviously, this fine distinction of terminology does not bother you as much as it bothers me. But I guess I shouldn't let it bother me; I'm a half-voice who could never be worthy of singing in Bach's works, and besides, I'm going to hell anyway because I'm moved by singers (and a whole style of singing) you don't fancy, a style that is evidently not worthy of moving me unless I'm already lost. (I'm probably also going to hell because I let myself get too angry and say nasty things back to a certain Thomas Braatz, too often; but I'm working on that.) I hope that when I get to hell I can meet and listen to Alfred Deller for eternity, because I sure do like his records...especially his Bach cantatas BWV 54 and BWV 170, and the Couperin Tenebrae Lessons, and those English lute songs and folksongs! He had such a pleasant VOICE (not a "half-voice") and did such beautiful things with it. So, to repeat the question: when, if ever, will you be a little more sensitive here and stop using your labels?

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 14, 2003):
'demi-voix' sounds very distinguished to my ear and it saves having to repeat whole sentences and paragraphs each time I encounter such a singer in the Bach cantata recordings. Just consider the term 'non-HIP' which is convenient to use in order to distinguish it from 'HIP,' an acronym, which, as a word, also implies other meanings, although derived from American slang, such as 'well-informed, knowledgeable, up-to-date, smart, stylish, etc.' Just think of all the listeners who today still prefer some of these older recordings performed in a style other than HIP. How must they feel about the word association that lies close at hand? Are they to feel themselves as being 'out of it' or old-fashioned' the same way that Bach was criticized in his lifetime for believing that he knew what was true and right about his compositional style, while the world around him no longer felt that he 'was with it?' They could hardly wait to replace Bach in the year before he !

Although the 'demi-voix' also existed in Bach's time, there seems to have been a proliferation of this type of voice since the early 60s. My own theory is that with the advent of the period instrument groups and the manner in which they presume that these reconstructed instruments are supposed to be played, there occurred 'a marriage made in heaven' between the 'demi-voix' that were to be found in numerous amateur groups and the generally lower level of volume of the period instruments. To a certain degree there is a better match between, let's say, a Ruth Holton, who sings instrumentally (rather abstractly) and the obbligato instruments that support her and even provide a musical line of equal importance that matches her voice very well. If you have not noticed it already in BWV 72, her voice, as usual, drops off considerably in the low range which plays an important part in her aria. At this point the balance between instruments and voice suffers. But much more seriously, her ability to add strength and warmth to the notes and the text in this low range is definitely lacking. She is simply holding the notes as a marker as if to say: "I've got the right notes. Isn't that enough?" No, it simply is not, when compared with a more robust recording of this aria such as that by Augér. I will repeat what I have said many times before: any listener who wants to listen to Holton in this aria with the Leusink group will have a pleasant listening experience, one that can be used as background music while doing other things, driving to work, jogging, walking, doing other work in the house, but there is another (IMO) higher level of experiencing the same music in such a way that it becomes completely engaging. Both the text and Bach's music are combined in such a way that they speak more directly, more convincingly to the listener. This is accomplished best of all by a singer with a fully trained voice. Such a singer will sing the text from the heart without any artificial techniques becoming apparent to the listener. Such singers are in the minority, but they exist in both 'camps' HIP as well as non-HIP. Just as there are some awful, trained singers who do not make the grade in the non-HIP camp, there are in the HIP camp quite a few 'demi-voix' who are not necessarily awful, but simply limited or insufficient when compared with the best.

As an introduction (cheap as it is to purchase), the Leusink series is an excellent introduction to the Bach cantatas. There may be many listeners who will never need to purchase any other Bach cantata recordings. This is their prerogative. The BCML is, I hope, intended to survey 'everything that is out there' and, hopefully, with some feedback from listeners who take their task seriously, others will be able to read opinions other than their own without feeling threatened. If their search is over they can remain with their favorite choices, but conceivably a few, after hearing reports on cantata recordings which they do not possess, may want to investigate for themselves and possibly will not have to purchase recordings which others have deemed lacking in certain respects. If I were such a listener, I would like to know how the reviewers have arrived at their selections/evaluations. For this it becomes necessary to reveal weaknesses as well as strengths, otherwise we will be dealing only with platitudes restricted to only to having listened to one or two recordings of a cantata.

Lalis Ivan wrote (April 14, 2003):
Actually, mezza voce is an achievement and not a deficiency of a human voice. To produce a sound that is consistent on a lower volume is more difficult than singing forte, not mentioning changing a volume on a single note without any abrupt effects (messa di voce, i.e., going from piano to forte and back to piano). Mezza voce is not a term to characterise a voice, but rather a certain way of singing.

Ad vibrato. Every human voice (except Emma Kirkby) has a natural vibrato. I think that the quoted paragraph is not about vibrato, but about wobble. Vibrato is natural, wobble is a problem that should be treated. Ad natural voices vs blending the registers. If one should use only natural voices with extended range, we would be left with nothing. Even the famous castrati were working on their head voice and its connection with the chest-voice to extend their ranges. I guess they would not be allowed to sing Bach music as well.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 14, 2003):
Bradley Lehman asks: >>So, to repeat the question: when, if ever, will you be a little more sensitive here and stop using your labels?<<
< Thomas Braatz wrote: 'demi-voix' sounds very distinguished to my ear and it saves having to repeat whole sentences and paragraphs each time I encounter such a singer in the Bach cantata recordings. >
"Demi-voix" sounds as distinguished to my ear as "Pferdscheisse" does, and is similarly offensive, so I'll now use that term where necessary. Let's see where that gets us.

I believe performances should be assessed on their individual merits: on how well they bring out the words and music as a convincing whole. I agree that it's valuable if there is some objective way of comparing their features; it's also OK if the reviewer mentions how it moved him/her, or failed to be moving...personal reaction is not out of bounds.

What is out of bounds is dismissive Pferdscheisse such as this: "The division between the two major performance types is entirely as one might expect with the HIP (Harnoncourt, Leusink, and Gardiner) group having the fastest tempi. This means that the HIP conductors are forced to resort to fast tempi in order to accommodate weaknesses in both the vocal and instrumental categories: vocally the singers used are, with only a few exceptions, of the mezzavoce type (this Italian musical term aptly designates a category of limited range and volume singers) and instrumentally the use of period reconstructions often not fully mastered or played according questionable theories (for example, Harnoncourt’s notion that Bach’s string players could only play very short 2- or 3-note phrases due to their very short bows) leads toward faster tempi to overcome deficiencies."

That quote, sir, is straightforward polemic against types of style you just don't care for...not a judgment of the performances themselves, but a prejudice against them! You have set up "HIP" and "mezzavoce" and your other labels as convenient villains so you can rail against them, while pretending to review the actual recordings. THAT is unacceptable, especially at the beginning of your "review" as your opening statement. All you're doing here is slinging around labels, so you can knock anything that resembles them. Style is not content. You know that. Why, then, do you pick on the styles of voice you dismiss as "demi-voix" (or whatever), and styles of playing/singing you dismiss as "HIP" in such a prejudicial manner?

Ditto for the Pferdscheisse about Leusink merely "following in his mentor's footsteps." Don't you think Leusink should (and did) take responsibility for his own interpretation?

And, another rather humorous bit of illogic seems not to have occurred to you in your most recent review. You assert that "the HIP conductors are forced to resort to fast tempi in order to accommodate weaknesses" and "deficiencies." Then, the very first recording you discuss, and the one you praise most highly, is Ramin's, where you mention your disappointment that things are not together, and speculate that maybe they didn't have enough rehearsal time with the instruments. By your own logic here, to be consistent, perhaps you should have chided Ramin on his choice of tempo: he could have picked a much faster tempo to cover up those weaknesses and deficiencies! But again, it just seems you'd rather pick the performance you like, and consign all the others to outer darkness by type (HIP, whatever that means to you), instead of grappling with the others on their own terms. How can the same piece of logic be used to say one thing for something you like, and the opposite for something you dislike? It's Pferdscheisse.

it destroys the usefulness of your reviews; the illogic and the labeling show that you are not as objective about this reviewing as you believe you are. The illogic and the labeling both betray sloppy thinking, or shortcuts instead of thinking. Your reviews end up sounding more like rationalizations (why your preferences are right and all other styles are wrong, categorically) than like statements of fact about the actual recordings.

You say you object to the terms "HIP" and "non-HIP." So do I. (Please get that point: I don't like the acronym "HIP" any more than you do!) As noted above, I believe performances should be assessed on their individual merits, not on their categorical style. Categories and labels are merely convenient crutches to take the place of actual thought. And labels are doubly dangerous: they have negative connotations (as you point out, about "non-HIP"). So, let's not use labels! That's what I'm saying!

A good test of a label's usefulness is: mentally use the word "Pferdscheisse" in its place. If the result offends you, or has a chance of offending ANYONE, it means the construction is wrong: one should not be using a label there at all. Reword the sentences so they don't rely on labels. Simple enough!

Donald Satz wrote (April 16, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] Tom seems to be creating a link between the volume of a voice and its expressiveness. I think that expression is largely a matter of emotions, not volume.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 16, 2003):
[To Donald Satz] While it may be true that boy soprano such as the one on the Ramin recording (BWV 72/5) may not have very much variable expression even with full-volume sound in the low range (listen to Augér if you want both expression and full-volume throughout the entire range), there can be very little expression if the voice is barely able to register the notes that are demanded by Bach in the low range as is the case with adult 'demi voix' such as Holton's. Some may extol her child-like simplicity and leave it at that, but this aria is capable of being very much more than that: this is a statement of a strong faith "wenn es der Glaube faßt" and only Ramin's boy soprano and Augér seem to do this text justice in their interpretations, the boy with excellent volume throughout the entire range of the aria and Augér with her mature, adult ability to infuse this music with emotion, very little of which or any at all that are evident in the Holton version which is, for the most part rather abstract in nature as she sings more like an instrument would be played (her indistinct German pronunciation does not help in this matter.) The latter version is somewhat like listening to an opera arranged only for instruments: there is great music to be heard if it is played reasonably well, but a substantial part of the entire musical experience has been removed. This should not bother those who are distracted by operatic voices, but are more interested in just the music.

Yes, there is a definite link between the lack of volume of a voice and its expressiveness, but it is also true that 'full-voice' singers need not necessarily be very expressive, but their chances of being so are certainly enhanced if they do have such a voice to begin with. A 'demi voix' has almost no possibility of overcoming this handicap (weakness in the low range) unless they reduce their volume in the low range even further to a whisper (which happens frequently enough) or they create unpleasant sounds by 'forcing' the voice beyond its determined limit (just as bad.) The gauge by which to assess this situation is whether such a voice is clearly audible in a larger church or setting where a certain degree of projection is absolutely necessary as Bob Henderson found out when he heard a live performance of the Bach Collegium Japan: "And the air appeared to swallow certain voices, Peter Kooij (Jesus) especially. We have listened to too many CDs and too many canned performances! We expect electronically controlled volume and precise placement of sound. The imperfection of live performance escapes us!" The true nature of these 'demi voix' becomes apparent when they are heard in a natural setting without amplification.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 16, 2003):
Labels

[snip]
And you've said (today): < The true nature of these 'demi voix' becomes apparent when they are heard in a natural setting without amplification. >
Tell us, Tom, when have you (personally) heard Ruth Holton or Sytse Buwalda or Bas Ramselaar or Klaus Mertens or Peter Kooy or Kurt Equiluz in a concert? And, if you have not, how do YOU have ANY idea how loud their individual voices are without amplification?

Here's a representative sample from your review of BWV 90, on 11/23/02:
"The remainder, van Egmond, Mertens, Kooy, and Ramselaar, are half-voices that can only give you half of what Nimsgern can. These voices sing cleanly and these singers try to be as expressive as their voices with their limitations will allow."
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV90-D.htm

No matter how much you keep trying to justify this dismissive labeling of people, making up different labels to dodge the issue, it's still bigotry.

Tom, what kind of car do you drive? I hope it's not one of those ridiculous "Demi-Voitures" that have only four cylinders, because there's no way to be expressive on the road with one of those. No way at all. They just poke along in everybody else's way, especially on hills. Only a "Niete" would go out in public with such a piece of Pferdscheisse. Real Men don't drive Demi-Voitures. (Do you see yet how offensive this is? And this is merely insulting automobiles, not people!)

Brad Lehman
(owner of a four-cylinder car)

Donald Satz wrote (April 16, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] I tend to be more concerned with huge and overwhelming voices, those which take over a performance. I find those types of voices difficult to bear as they damage the balances among the performing forces.

The one that most sticks in my mind is a disc of Handel arias performed by Bryn Terfel. From my view, Terfel is telling us "Screw the orchestra and screw Handel also - this is my show". I would much rather listen to a relatively weak voice with some decent range of expressiveness.

Ruth Holton's voice might not be among the strongest, but she expresses beautifully - just like Brad said, and I don't often agree with Brad.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 16, 2003):
< Donald Satz wrote: Ruth Holton's voice might not be among the strongest, but she
expresses beautifully - just like Brad said, and I don't often agree with Brad. >
Er...uh...thanks! Point well made!

Ivan Lalis wrote (April 24, 2003):
Sorry for returning to the subject after a week, but I had to leave for a holiday before being able to post the following. It's a mix of facts and opinions so feel free to ignore or disagree with them :-)

I do agree that there is an extra thrill with big voices singing Bach, actually it works with any music. Finale of Don Giovanni can't be more beautiful and frightening as when the part of Commendatore is taken by a big-voiced bass with a dark timbre. But there are also problems with big voices.

1) they are very rare and
2) big voices usually lack precision and agility to do justice to florid singing

Before I left for my holiday I attended a very nice performance of Johannes-Passion (BWV 245). We got 4 normal-sized voices for SATB and one extra large bass. Excellent as he was, I noticed he often lacked precision in coloraturas.

Maybe I'm coming from the wrong angle, but the main reason why I love Bach's vocal output is that it probably belongs to most beautiful and demanding writings for the human voice. I like when this neck-breaking music is sung with an ease and elegance. I expect singers with enough agility and perfect vocal technique. I believe that a Bachian singer must possess a bel-canto technique (as Tom noted - being able to sing messa di voce on any note in their vocal range) and any expression is to be added, while only vocal means are allowed. If one csing all notes properly, one can start to superimpose expression, feelings, etc.

Of course there are singers I'll always have a soft spot for, despite their (what I find to be) vocal problems, but I am at least aware of them and understand that others may find them problematic :-) To conclude, I do not know many big-voiced singers being able to do justice to Bach the way I expect them to. It's almost always the "demi voix" singers who work for me.

A few remarks about balance of recordings and not being able to hear everything that is written in the score. I do not believe that one should hear everything in a recording/performance, that's what score is for. Not mentioning, that I believe that there is everything in the score :-) But still, if anyone wants to hear as much as possible, one should probably try OVPP as the level of clarity of such recordings is amazing. Of course it requires a reduced orchestra and competent singers.

I have bought and already listened to 1/3 of the new McCreesh' recording of Matthäus Passion (BWV 244). Being a fan of HIP and OVPP, I was still sceptical about OVPP in Passions as I always liked the contrast between solo singers and choirs. So I began to listen to it with an intention not to like it :-) It's a bit of a shock to hear "Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen" with such reduced forces, but it still works very well and plus one can follow the singers more easily. It also made sense to me in another way. The Passion opens by a choir of solo-singers to introduce it, each of them will take a role in the story later on. There is no contrast between solo-voice and choir in some numbers, but to my surprise it worked very well – the numbers make an impression of a closed piece and not a sequence of contrasted small pieces for solo voice and choir. I am not saying this is the only valid way how to do Passions, but it surely was very interesting to hear a very familiar music the way I did not hear it before. To finish my demi-review, I liked all the "demi-voices". Reservation goes to Kozena singing alto. Much as I like her, I think the tessitura is low for her and that she should have rather sung soprano part. But I generally prefer counter-tenor, i.e., high male voice to mezzo/contralto, i.e., low female voice in Bach alto parts...


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Last update: ýAugust 6, 2004 ý14:36:33