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David Daniels astonishes with countertenor showpieces

David Daniels, countertenor, Harry Bicket and The English Concert, March 22, 2009

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

Easily the most exotic of the classical voice types, the countertenor has rarely featured outside the relatively small circle of early music aficionados. American David Daniels has changed that, as the first countertenor in living memory to break into the classical mainstream. He was showcased Sunday afternoon at the Chan Centre with The English Concert (a rare co-presentation by the Chan, Early Music Vancouver, and the Vancouver Recital Society), and a program devoted to music of Bach and Handel demonstrated Daniels in all his considerable glory.

With any countertenor there’s always a moment when one adjusts to the reality of such improbably luminous sounds coming from an adult male singer. Before Daniels took the stage, Bach’s C major Suite was given a gracious, courtly reading by The English Concert under director Harry Bicket. Then came that countertenor moment, with a relatively simple and straightforward aria from Bach’s Cantata BWV 170.

Daniels has made his instrument flexible and true; his understanding of his repertoire is developed and tasteful. As the program unfolded, it was easy to see the complete rapport between singer, conductor, and ensemble. Bicket and his players provided remarkably sympathetic accompaniment, carefully scaled to the dynamic range of the soloist and responsive in the highest possible degree to his interpretations.

The afternoon’s second half was devoted to Handel, starting off with another purely instrumental number, the A major Concerto Grosso, Op. 6. Daniels has made Handel roles a career staple; certainly the florid vocal fireworks of Furibondo from Partenope and the entire Mad Scene from Orlando show him in his most flashy, operatic mode. The audience fairly gasped with astonishment at Daniels’s handling of these florid technical showpieces, but they were by no means the only memorable music making of the afternoon.

Earlier his performance of two Bach arias, Erbarme dich (“Have mercy, my God”) from the St Matthew Passion and Schlummert ein (“Slumber now”) from Cantata BWV 82 packed an extraordinary emotional wallop: a fusion of technique, vocal sound, and every element of fine musicianship united in a powerful, and powerfully moving, whole.

Tue Mar 24, 2009