The modern countertenor is a fascinating phenomenon. Largely revived by Alfred Deller in the 1950s it has enjoyed huge popularity through the early music revival and the contemporary music scene. But some important musicians believe that the voice we have come to know never actually existed historically and there is much evidence to support this line of enquiry. Whatever your suspicions, the voice definitely does exist now and it seems to be consuming more and more repertoire each time a new artist comes to our attention.
Cenk Karaferya is a young London-based countertenor of Turkish descent more in keeping with the American branch of the countertenor tree than what the conductor and musicologist Denis Stevens once dubbed the 'Cambridge Coo.' In some circles these higher, richer falsettists are often called sopranists but could more usefully be described via something akin to the German Fach System when the landscape of the falsettist becomes clearer.
Together with the harpsichordist and conductor Bridget Cunningham, Karaferya founded the Broschi Ensemble in 2007 to explore repertoire from the Baroque and early Classical era. This appearance in St. John's, Smith Square delivered a beautifully balanced programme of Vivaldi and Handel's operatic arias and overtures including the recently discovered Sinfonia Croesus by Albinoni, which is the overture to the pasticcio Croesus containing music and arias by Polani. This may have been its first performance in London since the 18th century.
The first half of the evening took a little time to warm up with Karaferya slightly eclipsed by his own ensemble in Handel's arias. I have always felt that St. John's is an unkind space for solo vocalists and although beautifully sung, both Handel's 'Dover, giustizia, amor' (Ariodante) and 'Verdi allori' (Orlando) seemed somewhat lost in the big space. However the overture to Rinaldo offered the Broschi Ensemble a real opportunity to step forward and there was some notably nimble playing from the leader, Huw Daniel. By the time Karaferya sang the famous aria 'Cara sposa' he was clearly in a more comfortable stride with some beautiful phrasing and a seamless tone.
Vivaldi's operatic works are finally coming to prominence thanks to new recording projects and adventurous singers such as Cecilia Bartolli. In the second half, the Broschi Ensemble played 'Vedro con mio diletto' (Il Giustino) with a zest that I had felt was lacking in the first half. They were bold, exciting and risky. It paid off and Karaferya responded to this energy by giving a truly exciting performance. Then came Albinoni's Sinfonia Croesus with a sumptuous adagio being followed by a lively allegro at the end featuring energetic conducting by Bridget Cunningham. This was followed by more Vivaldi: 'Sento in seno ch'in pioggia di lag rime' (Tieteberga) for pizzicato strings in which both the ensemble and soloist were on their best form of the evening. The Programme ended triumphantly with Handel: 'Nel profondo cieco mondo' (Orlando Furioso).
It seems clear that both Cenk Karaferya and Bridget Cunningham are artists on the ascent and this concert bodes well for a new baroque ensemble that I hope to see more of in future. Karaferya sounds as if he is on the road to becoming a high operatic countertenor but if he is going to specialize in this castrati repertoire then he will need to choose carefully and not be persuaded into dramatic roles too soon. This concert sounded like the start of a bright career and an exciting partnership with Cunningham and The Broschi Ensemble. One has to admire their enterprise amid the current financial gloom. I hope to hear much more of them in future.
By Ed Breen
Photo: Cenk Karaferya
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