Bejun Mehta is enjoying an increasingly fruitful relationship with Harmonia Mundi.
Here, he tells The Classical Review about his latest attempt to take the countertenor voice into unchartered territories with a recital of 20th-century English songs, and how he plans to bring the quintessential sound of early music to contemporary audiences.
It isn’t so very long ago that the countertenor voice was thought to be all but extinct, with the sound of the voice slowly dwindling in the first decades of the 20th century before falling silent altogether.
Then, in the late 1940s, less than a generation after the death of the last true castrati, Alessandro Moreschi (recordings of whom can still be found on DG and a number of independent labels, including Pearl and Documents Classics), along came the helium-high voice of Alfred Deller, an Englishman who revived the most exotic and female-sounding of all male voice registers and restored the presumed-dead voice to the repertory.
But Deller’s arrival on the scene, and even that of René Jacobs (now more familiarly known as a conductor) and James Bowman in later years, was a mere tremor compared to the earthquake-like outburst in the second half of the 1990s when an entire generation of countertenors seemed to emerge fully formed. Today, the likes of Andreas Scholl, Gérard Lesne, Christopher Robson, David Daniels, and more recent names such as Michael Chance and Lawrence Zazzo, all hold their own on stage and in the recording studio alongside their tenorial and baritonal counterparts.
A striking illustration of the inroads the voice has made into previously unthinkable areas of the repertoire comes with the release on Harmonia Mundi – who made pioneering countertenor recordings with both Alfred Deller and Andreas Scholl – of Down by the Salley Gardens, a collection of 20th-century English songs by the American countertenor Bejun Mehta, recorded with is long-time concert partner Julius Drake.
Now 43, the Laurinburg, North Carolina-born Mehta’s recording career dates back almost 30 years to 1983, when he made his debut on disc as a celebrated boy soprano. His latest offering is the follow-up to one of The Classical Review’s 10 Best recordings of 2010, the much admired Ombra Cara, his first solo recital last year for HM. (Mehta’s debut on DVD earlier this year was another Handel affair, his performance as Cyrus in Belshazzar hailed as “outstanding” in these pages.)
But, while Ombra Cara’s focus on the music of Handel, surely England’s greatest musical immigré, has some glancing geographic propinquity to Mehta’s latest release, the choice of songs by English composers of the 20th century is a surprising (and in some quarters, controversial) one for the countertenor voice. So why English song,
and why now, I wondered.
“It’s not now for me. I’ve been singing these pieces for a very long time, as long as I’ve been a professional singer, so it’s certainly not new repertoire for me. One of the things I like about it is its immediacy. Even in the most harmonically challenging pieces it is incredibly direct and not overly complicated. The exaggerated example of that would be the kind of immediacy you find in musical theatre pieces, and some of the songs – Quilter’s Take, o take those lips away, for example – could almost be torch songs, or a cabaret song. The absolute directness of textual and harmonic expression is very appealing.”
It’s a measure of Mehta’s utter conviction in the material that he
freely speaks of it alongside the hallowed tradition of 19th-century German Lied.
“The songs on this disc, I claim, are as good as familiar pieces from the German tradition. And if you look at the repertoire, there are hundreds that are of a superior, high quality that deserve to have greater exposure than they do.”
Although the disc is sub-titled “20th Century English Songs,” the lineage stretches back into the previous century with the likes of Charles Villiers Stanford and Victor Hely-Hutchinson represented and as far as Purcell 400 hundred years earlier (albeit in re-workings by two modern British totems, Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett).
Although regularly championed by English singers in the past, in
recent years England’s song repertoire has found fewer advocates at home and seldom any willing to commit to it on disc from outside its native shores.
“The trick with this repertoire is to be very careful in assembling the program. Unlike in the German tradition where, with Schubert alone say, it’s very hard to get it wrong, there’s much greater variety in English song: there’s very high ‘art songs,’ folk songs, drinking songs and lullabies all mixed in together. So you have to be sure you pick the high-quality ones, which, I maintain, can stand on a stage with any song repertoire that exists.”
Claiming to be “incredibly old-fashioned” in wanting to “make the best-quality product and let it speak for itself,” Mehta’s decision to make the new disc clearly has a serious intent, one that is evident in the singer’s refusal to frame the recital with a constricting theme.
“There’s no music that if you do too much of the one thing, it doesn’t lose whatever makes it special and singular. Theme-ing discs can be dangerous because it can so often begin to quickly sound tedious on the ear. Here, I tried to juxtapose things in order to point up the specific attributes of every song.”
Did the fact that the songs were not originally written for the countertenor voice present any problems? Apparently not.
“There are lots of songs not written for particular voices, songs that are sung by lots of different voices, so I had to make no more accommodation for me as a countertenor than for any other singer doing this same program. And there’s nothing here that makes allowances for how people might respond to the idea of a countertenor singing these songs.”
While times and tastes have changed, Mehta – as with every other countertenor, too – still falls prey to all sorts of fancies and fears about
“I didn’t make this recording with the thought of what other people think the countertenor voice should be doing in mind. So I didn’t put on tons of lullabies – or elegies! I never want to hear the words ‘otherworldly’ or ‘ethereal’ ever again. There’s nothing wrong with them, per se, but the idea that you would want to apply those adjectives and attributes to a voice as though they were the only colours that it had is slightly ludicrous.
“All people have to do is think about how they think of countertenors, and then think of how they think about sopranos, or tenors, or baritones, to realize how limited their thinking is about the voice.
It concerns me because I don’t want such constraints.”
While Mehta finds himself in a position of being able to pursue his
own ambitions, the dog-end of prejudice that continues to persist around the countertenor voice is, he says, more “mild annoyance”
“On the other hand, if one is up for the challenge, it does give you an over-arching goal to bring the voice type forward. In that sense, this record could have much more meaning than my Handel record did. That was an expected thing for the countertenor voice to do; this is totally different.”
Different, not least, in moving away from expectations of what the countertenor voice should, more naturally, be doing; an aspect of the disc that Mehta describes as “the next step for a voice that until recently was thought of as a curio but that is now accepted in opera – that discussion is finished – but in singing songs that aren’t lute songs, it is an exception that is more than mere novelty.”
Which means, the proselytizing countertenor says, more repertoire departures for the voice from in future, not least a new opera, Written on Skin, written especially for him by George Benjamin with a libretto by the playwright Martin Crimp, to be premiered by at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in southern France in 2012, before performances in Amsterdam, London, and Toulouse.
And next up on disc from Harmonia Mundi is Handel’s Agrippina, conducted by René Jacobs, an aria collection – “that I can’t talk more about just yet – it’s not baroque arias, but it is such a good idea!” – and the tantalizing prospect of an all-Schubert disc.
All of which points to one of the most modern-thinking possessors of that most antique of voices. Which is something to be said, for someone who describes himself as “incredibly old fashioned.”