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Nigel Rogers 70th Birthday Concert: Carissimi, Caccini, D’India, Frescobaldi, Marazzoli, Kapsberger, Rossi, Stradella, Froberger: Nigel Rogers (tenor), Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo) Lina Zilinskyte (harpsichord), Wigmore Hall, 3 May 2005 (ME)

Some years ago – well, 30, to be exact – I attended a concert of Monteverdi, Caccini, D’India and Carissimi in a spectacularly ornate upper room in the Treasurer’s House in York: I was a student at the time, already well versed in opera and Lieder but a virtual stranger to the music, and style of presentation of it, which I was about to hear. Purcell, of course, as sung by Alfred Deller, had been part of my life for years, but this was something else. The singer was the tenor Nigel Rogers, and the audience numbered precisely twenty seven, in a room which could have seated a couple of hundred, but what we lacked in numbers we made up for in enthusiasm, for this was a display of virtuoso singing which I for one found completely stunning and which affected my taste and musical judgment for the rest of my life. Fast forward to the present day, and we find the same singer commemorating his 70th birthday and the 400th anniversary of the birth of Carissimi, before an audience of some 60 or so in a hall which can seat five hundred.

Such a sparse audience did not seem to have affected the singer in 1975, but this one certainly did, and gave me much pause for thought. Admittedly, this concert had been added late to the Wigmore’s schedule (why?) since it had not featured in the season’s brochure, from which devotees select their concerts up to a year ahead, but even so, this was a depressingly tiny turn-out for a display of such artistry. Perhaps the winsome charms of Simon Keenlyside at the ROH’s new opera were the attraction for virtually every other critic in town: if so, the clash was a pity, since Rogers is a far more musically significant singer than Keenlyside and all but the tiniest handful of those who regularly grace the Wigmore’s stage.

Why so? Put bluntly, at his peak, he was a singer of whom you could say, even in the most incredibly taxing music, ‘he has the notes, he sings them, and he brings colour to the words and drama to the expression.’ Of course, a career of some forty five years inevitably takes its toll: the voice was never purely beautiful – I recall another well known tenor assuring me ‘I’ve got a more beautiful voice than him’ which I hardly needed to be told – since it is somewhat grainy in texture, lacking a warm centre and sometimes used in such a way that tonal beauty is sacrificed to meaning or display. However, Rogers still puts most other singers in the shade when it comes to the kind of flamboyant, highly wrought ornamentation which characterizes – or should characterize – this kind of music, and perhaps more remarkably, he gives this music the kind of word-sensitive expressiveness which one expects from a Fischer-Dieskau in the sphere of Lieder.

Can he still deliver the goods? Yes, although glancing out at that sparse auditorium clearly made him much more inclined to look down at his score with greater frequency, and affected the confidence of his normally self-assured style. Perhaps a raging dental abscess and consequent antibiotics had affected my judgment somewhat – they certainly were the reason why I had to leave the concert early – but Rogers’ singing seemed to me as daring as the majority of present day singing of this music is weak and colourless. Carissimi’s ‘Come sete importuni’ may have shown a little strain here and there, but the highly wrought decorations at such points as ‘Amorosi pensieri!’ and ‘alma d’inferno’ and the wonderfully expressive way of dealing with words like ‘core’ were all in place.

When Rogers sings this kind of secular cantata, of which Carissimi was a master, having written more than 300 of them, you know the difference between phrases such as the tenderly melancholy ‘Tutte per me sparite / Son le gioie d’amore’ ( All the joys of love have vanished) and the angrily intense ‘E che forse pensando / Al suon d’aspre querele/ Inteneri credete / Duro sasso crudele/ (Do you believe you can soften a hard, cruel stone?) whereas when the likes of the vast majority of singers attempt this sort of thing, the music ends up sounding uniformly ‘pleasant’ and nondescript. Of course, it goes without saying that for those singers, the hall would be full, the critics’ seats stuffed to the gunwales, and the reviews would gush forth in terms of ‘refreshing’ and ‘cleanly sung’ (i.e., no decorations).

Caccini’s ‘O che felice giorno’ is a glorious piece which deserves to be heard more often, and I’ve no doubt it would be if most singers could get round the lines. It’s a song which gives the lie, if anything can, to the notion that there is no such thing as happy music, recalling Ulysses’ outburst ‘O fortunat’! O fortunat’ Ulisse!’ and it provides plenty of opportunity for vocal and verbal pyrotechnics, all properly in evidence here although it was the heartfelt wamth of lines such as ‘O mia gioia infinita’ which impressed most vividly. Frescobaldi’s ‘Ti lascio amima mia’ is an extremely challenging piece, with its long-breathed lines and daring suspension: it was daringly performed here, the final trill on ‘morire’ just on the edge of vocal possibility and the lovely, delicate accompaniment finely played by Elizabeth Kenny.

Sigismondo D’India is, as Rogers writes in his excellent notes, the most important early composer of monodies after Caccini: D’India’s style is florid in the extreme, using highly individual harmonies and placing great stress on the singer’s expressive power. ‘Quella vermiglia rosa’ and ‘Mentre che’l cor’ are both from the ‘Musiche’ of 1609 and 1621, and both gave Rogers ample opportunity to display his idiomatic Italian, his intimate understanding of phrasing and decoration, his open tone where required, such as in ‘lieta e pomposa’ in the former song, and most of all his expressive technique: the latter song is a setting of Petrarch’s famous sonnet, and the language is characteristically passionate and intense, qualities amply evident in the singing.

Nigel Rogers at 70 is obviously not the singer he was at 40, but he still has much to teach the younger generation of singers, especially in terms of commitment to the music, dedication to the most challenging techniques – he studied the art of Indian classical singers, and brings much of their style to his own performances – and sheer understanding of the music and expressiveness in its presentation. He was a pioneer in the singing of Monteverdi and other composers, in the same way as Deller was with Purcell, or Fischer-Dieskau with Schubert.

Melanie Eskenazi

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