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David Daniels Broadens His Horizons

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Handel, Oratorio Arias, D. Daniels, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, J. Nelson
(Virgin Classics, 2002)
Countertenors have a limited repertory, because the voice part was just not a solo option for composers in many historical periods. This does not prevent them from trying to claim music created for other voice types, as David Daniels showed in his recital debut at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, presented by Vocal Arts D.C. on Sunday afternoon. His voice was not in top shape, with some raggedness at the ends of phrases and shrillness on the top notes -- coughing seemed to indicate he was recovering from something -- which did little to relieve the impression that much of the music he sang was just not meant for this kind of voice. It was still beautiful to hear, as Daniels is a consummate musician with a sure musical taste and a dynamic stage presence.

Beethoven's mini-song cycle Adelaide was a case in point, music composed for a higher voice that tested Daniels at the top of his tessitura. He made most of it work quite beautifully, with a pretty sense of melodic line, but the same problems came to the fore in a set of songs by Reynaldo Hahn. In Hahn's lifetime countertenors were around, singing in church choirs, but that was a tradition with which Hahn had limited contact. A countertenor at the top of his range just does not have the same effect of sound as a soprano or tenor, which came across at the end of Hahn's Paysage, for example. Accompanist Martin Katz, not a finesse pianist, at times almost covered Daniels with forceful playing, making the largely unaccompanied Chanson au bord de la fontaine, a sort of neo-medieval planctus, the highlight of the set, as it featured the quiet beauty Daniels can achieve.

The most incongruous choice was a set of songs by Brahms, who likely would have rolled over in his grave at the sound of a countertenor singing his music. Here Katz was more in his element, giving a beefy sound at the keyboard in these songs, so often predominantly in the lower half of the instrument. High notes were again an issue, as at the climax of Auf dem See, but it was the sounds Brahms likely had in mind at the bottom end that did not match with the countertenor tessitura. Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen is a magnificently gloomy song, with the piano brooding in the bass end in a way that put the spindly countertenor sound in a bad light, and it was almost certainly not what Brahms was thinking of in O wüsst' ich doch either. The best effect came in the lusty folk song set by Brahms, Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund, with its eye-winking "Du la la la" refrain.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Daniels, Katz show music is more than mere beauty (Washington Post, February 1)

Alex Baker, Blackberry Winner (Parterre Box, February 3)
Not surprisingly, Daniels was most at ease in Baroque music, the bread and butter of all countertenors. Henry Purcell actually knew the countertenor voice and wrote for it, and the breezy melody of Music for a While just sat beautifully in Daniels's compass. Both Katz and Daniels showed a crazy bravado in the kooky I'll Sail upon the Dog Star, and Daniels's gifts at dramatic recitative, combining musical sense and dramatic immediacy, were featured in Sweeter than Roses. While Daniels has not put much on record in recent years, we have always admired his work on stage in Handel and Vivaldi operas. No surprise, then, that he had his best moment in Dove sei, amato bene, an aria from Handel's Rodelinda for Bertarido, a role created by the castrato Senesino. A final set of American folk songs, in saccharine arrangements by Steven Mark Kohn, was mostly just a lightweight lead-in to two encores, Poulenc's tricky La Belle Jeunesse and Alec Wilder's Blackberry Winter, a sentimental favorite of Vocal Arts founder Gerald Perman, to whom Daniels dedicated it.

The next recital in the Vocal Arts D.C. series features tenor Javier Camarena (March 24), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

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