René Jacobs: "The Countertenor, The Accent Recordings, 1978–1982"
Kuijken, Junghänel, Immerseel and others. No texts. Accent ACC 24321 (4)
ACCENT RECORDS has rereleased four recordings from 1978–82 of René Jacobs at vocal maturity, just as he was going on to have a conducting career of distinction. These include a disc of Purcell songs, one of German Baroque cantatas, songs and arias by unexpected composers such as Donizetti, Bellini and Schubert, and a complete recording of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. It’s interesting to evaluate Jacobs’s singing on these offerings in light of what almost four decades of countertenors have produced since.
American successors, such as Jeffrey Gall and Derek Lee Ragin, employed greater use of chest voice and brilliant timbres that seemed in the early ’80s to legitimize countertenor singing in the eyes of standard operagoers. The star career of David Daniels naturally followed. But the achievement of these singers was to legitimize the high male voice not only as one of sweetness but as an exponent onstage of full-blooded emotional energy. Jacobs does not go there. His singing shows an affected restraint, especially with his wispy high notes. When Gluck re-created his Orfeo for Paris, he instructed the tenor Legros to cry the name of Euridice in the opening number “as if someone were sawing through your bone.” He could not have wished less of the alto castrato Guadagni in Orfeo’s first production in Vienna, in 1762 (the version performed here by Jacobs). Yet Jacobs sings only shyly in the top in his recording of the role, and with such vowel distortion that his dead love’s name can hardly be comprehended. Whether in Italian (where intervocalic rs are invariably and incorrectly rolled) or in English, Jacobs’s lapses in diction and lack of attention to the text are extreme. One Purcell song unfamiliar to me (“Retir’d from any mortal’s sight”) was utterly incomprehensible without the printed text. The German cantatas album is better, perhaps due to the pieces’ lower tessitura.
In all languages, Jacobs sings more clearly in his chest voice (generally from the F above middle C downward, depending on context). Some other general characteristics also emerge: Jacobs transitions evenly between chest and middle voice. Less appealingly, he swoops upward to accent a word or syllable, an affectation so frequently performed as to be tiresome. Just as aggravatingly, Jacobs phrases almost by the syllable, coming off nearly all notes individually and with little or no legatoline. Most affected are the Italian cavatine. Jacobs demonstrates wildly inventive ornamentation in several strophic selections, particularly Bellini’s “Vaga luna” and Schubert’s “Da voi, cari lumi,” which may conjecturally be idiomatic but ill serves the composers’ original limpid phrases. Jacobs’s hyper-articulated coloratura in such selections does not always produce a corresponding clarity of pitch. There is considerable virtuosity on display, yet I found myself often admiring the artist rather than being moved by any heartfelt expression of the singer.
What I think will be a challenge for most listeners is the unvaryingly adenoidal, rather nasal timbre in most of Jacobs’s singing. He releases this quality in his most fluty top notes and when he sings in a more direct way in chest voice. But the middle voice (which is most of the voice) has a reedy, throaty sound that distorts the vowels. Since Jacobs’s heyday, text communicators in the countertenor category, such as Daniels and Michael Chance, have shown that the male alto’s vocal production need not necessarily obscure the text. Countertenors such as myself nonetheless owe much to Jacobs as a trailblazer, and this collection makes a fascinating study as to why. —Drew Minter