Andrew Watts / Iain Burnside

A Countertenor Songbook

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The veteran countertenor Andrew Watts gravitated toward contemporary music early in his career, partly because he was unfazed by the challenges of performing it. By 2018, he had quite a collection of music that had been written specifically for him, quite diverse in style, but somehow linked by his position at the fulcrum. The album is of interest purely because of how it testifies to the revival of the countertenor voice, which has shown up in opera and song independently of its historical associations. Michael Tippett's Songs for Ariel, composed not for Watts but in 1962 for a production of The Tempest, nevertheless fits: Tippett once directly coached Watts on a performance of the work. The Songs for Ariel make use of unique countertenor registers in their settings of Shakespeare's words, and the presence of songs that do this, rather than simply being set in an alto range, are what give the album its special flavor. Sample Joe Cutler's Song for Arthur, which refers not to the post-countertenor era but to medieval times: the titular Arthur is the king. Cutler exploits the castrato-like power of the countertenor as he calls for sudden strong high notes, and Watts responds effectively. Tansy Davies' Song of Pure Nothingness is not a modern text but another medieval one, a setting of a dreamlike poem by Guilhelm IX d'Aquitane (1071-1127). Perhaps intended as a kind of celebration of Watts' career and influence as a teacher, this release has broken out beyond those circles and enjoyed justified commercial success.

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