★★★★☆ David Hansen challenges our perceptions about the countertenor voice.

Concert Hall One, Kings Place, London
October 12,  2016

Anyone expecting an evening of baroque pyrotechnics from this world-class Australian countertenor would have been initially disappointed. What we were given instead was a programme that showcased an astonishing range of musical styles with Hansen meeting the challenges head on, often with great beauty and fine technical control. I came away having rethought the place of the countertenor in opera and song. Aside from the ravishing quality of his voice, Hansen’s legacy will be to have moved perceptions concerning the countertenor repertoire to a wider set of possibilities.

For readers who are not familiar with this London concert venue, Kings Place is a wonderful concert hall built in the basement area of the offices of The Guardian and Observer newspapers just behind Kings Cross Station. It has a warm acoustic in a beautiful wood panelled hall, large foyer areas and at ground floor level, views over the Regent’s Canal. It is a venue with a strong reputation for creative energy and experimentation in classical music. A perfect place for Hansen to make a rare London appearance.

The Brodsky Quartet (who both accompanied and shared the concert with Hansen) is an old favourite at Kings Place and we were treated to some fine playing with several rewarding musical challenges. Their choice of programming illustrated the versatility of pieces available in the baroque repertoire whilst also finding some interesting links with more modern compositions.

The evening opened with Hansen, resplendent in a long shimmering jacket, singing Purcell’s Music for a While and then Handel’s Yet can I hear that Dulcet lay. Both contained an inherent melancholy finely caught by Hansen’s moving interpretation. They also displayed a remarkable lower register that stayed firmly in countertenor tones. His breath control would be the envy of many other countertenors.

Keeping to the same musical period, the Brodsky Quartet performed some delightful and energetic Bach fugues, but then challenged us with a leap to the 20th century and a piece written for them by Roxanna Panufnik in memory of her composer father.  The link became more obvious in the playing style which echoed some of the energetic baroque approach and a distinct lack of vibrato in the playing style. Panufnik’s composition was really beautiful with warm phrasing and a welcome absence of sentimentality.

For the last piece before the interval, Hansen returned to sing The Sunset by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). He produced singing of remarkable intensity and beauty, with fluid tones and velvet lyricism. At times we could have been listening to Verdi in reflective mood, or even Strauss composing as he did so well for the mezzo-soprano voice. This was not in the remit of a traditional countertenor repertoire but it was delivered with great authenticity.

The second half of the concert opened with three songs by Goossens (1893-1962) which had taken their inspiration from writers in the Elizabethan period with some jaunty folk-style melodies, but also reminiscent of Purcellian recitative and harmonies. There was almost a Britten-like quality about them with maybe a touch of George Butterworth. Hansen proved an able storyteller, fully engaging his audience and further demonstrating his amazing breath control. Yet again, preconceptions about the countertenor repertoire were being challenged.

Taking us back to our early music roots, the Brodsky Quartet ably performed Purcell’s Fantasy in F, then changed gear back to the 20th century with Szymański​’s Five pieces for strings. In some ways it was the Purcell piece that sounded the most modern, but the Szymański both challenged and endeared with its complex rhythms and insistent tones from the lead violin. It was chamber music deconstructed and put back together in a really engaging way. As if we needed to be reminded this was precisely what Hansen was doing with the countertenor voice.

For anyone in the audience who had been longing for the pyrotechnics usually associated with countertenors, satisfaction soon came as Hansen dived into an impressive pieces by Pergolesi (1716-1736) entitled The Orfeo Cantata. After a strongly sung recitative Hansen embarked on an energised and virtuoso delivery stretching his technique to the full. He sparkled in the decorative runs and jumps with energy levels never faltering. His performance reminded me of the impact Cecilia Bartoli had when I first listened to her recording of Vivaldi arias. The Orfeo Cantata is mostly sung by sopranos today, but was probably written for a castrato. Hansen owned the piece and reclaimed it for a male singer.

An enthusiastic and warm reception was awarded by a lengthy encore which included Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. As the applause grew Hansen continued to display his versatility with a Norwegian folk song (dedicated to his wife) and a homage to the Bee Gees which was a timely reminder of how the countertenor voice sits comfortably in the genre of popular music as well.

Hansen now bases himself in Norway where he lives with his Norwegian wife. His work takes him all over Europe and occasionally to Boston in the US. He was last seen in Australia in 2013 when he sang the title role in Cavalli’s Giasone for Pinchgut Opera in Sydney. Luckily for those of us in the UK, Hansen will be appearing at Glyndebourne during the 2017 festival as Rosencrantz in Brett Dean’s much anticipated new opera based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I can see why this highly praised Australian composer will be happy to have such a versatile countertenor working with him on this important premier. Limelight will of course be there covering the event.

David Hansen can next be heard singing Apollo in Handel’s Il Parnasso in Festa on October 19 (Basle) and November 12 (Amsterdam) respectively

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