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Music review

Drawing vocal lines across centuries

Handel arias formed the dramatic centerpiece of Saturday's performance by countertenor David Daniels (above). Handel arias formed the dramatic centerpiece of Saturday's performance by countertenor David Daniels (above). (bernard benant)
Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / January 21, 2008

David Daniels does possess an unusually beautiful countertenor voice, a highly developed falsetto sound, much favored - in the form of both falsettist male altos and castrati - by Renaissance and Baroque composers. But, casting a stylistic net well beyond those eras, his Celebrity Series recital on Saturday highlighted not just his mastery of that comparatively uncommon vocal style, but those qualities sometimes overshadowed by vocal beauty: attention to text, emotional directness, physical presence.

Johannes Brahms, for example, designed his songs around the difference between the high and low parts of a standard voice, a difference nowhere near as pronounced for a countertenor; Daniels still conveyed much of their sparkle and longing with detailed, varied phrasing and articulation. Slower pieces were most convincing (especially the plaintive "Heimweh II"), Daniels shading his vowels to emulate Brahms's exploitation of range, coloring the long-drawn contours with a Baroque vibrato: a conscious, judicious ornament, rather than an omnipresent wash. A similar approach - crisp precision alternating with a direct, emotive thread - marked a handful of lush, pastoral early 20th-century English songs.

Daniels's vitreous clarity was a fascinating match for the neoclassic melodies of the Belle-Époque French composer Reynaldo Hahn, limning the Bachian air of "À Chloris," embodying the restrained, gray despair of "Chanson a bord de la fontaine." Here, too, accompanist Martin Katz's eloquent but sometimes percussive tone, more marble than silk, found an ideal setting.

For the rest, Daniels was in his customary element. Italian Baroque songs focused on character: Giulio Caccini's familiar "Amarilli, mia bella," so often presented as sad, one-dimensional lovesickness, had the full range of infatuation, from anxiety to depression to quiet joy. A pair of Handel arias confirmed Daniels's affinity for that composer's operatic style, showing how Handel's physical demands - be it the expansive, powerful arcs of "Cara sposa, amante cara" or the fierce coloratura of "Furibondo spira il vento" - are inseparable from the dramatic intent, the virtuosity not just a vehicle for symbolic affect, but the emotional engine. It was the evening's dramatic core.

Encores included Henry Purcell's "I'll sail upon the dog star," exuberantly navigated, and more Handel, the eerie "Già l'ebro" from "Orlando." But the best was the first, Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Orpheus With His Lute": Over Katz's soft tread, Daniels's clear, calligraphic line didn't just connect the 17th and 20th centuries, but collapsed the distance - leaving just the immediate, intimate shared experience between composer, performers, and audience.

David Daniels, countertenor; Martin Katz, piano

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday

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