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Edinburgh International Festival 2009 (4) - Beethoven and English Composers:
Bejun Mehta (countertenor) and Julius Drake (piano), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. 19. 8.2009 (SRT)

Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte

Songs by Purcell, Haydn, Vaughan Williams, Howells, Berkeley, Stanford, Warlock, Gurney

Even in spite of the popularity of the early music revival, a recital from a solo countertenor alone is rare indeed. But then this is Bejun Mehta, one of most impressive of their current number. He is by now a familiar guest at the Edinburgh Festival and the warmth of his reception this morning showed why he enjoys coming back. He once said that he loves recitals because they give him a break from singing Handel. Well his choice of repertoire remains daring, stretching all the way from Purcell to Berkeley. An die ferne Geliebte, the only coherent “group” in the recital, is normally cast for a darker baritone, but Mehta made it entirely his own, inhabiting the endless longing of the poetry and the subtlety of Beethoven’s setting. He was helped by the incomparable Julius Drake, surely the most sensitive of Lieder accompanists, whose keyboard responded to every nuance of the vocal writing like the finest of hand-in-glove collaborators.

Mehta’s countertenor is more ethereal than most of his colleagues’, even ghostly at times, but it manages to remain muscular and broad, finding strength in the middle and bottom of his range while rarely sounding under pressure at the top. He caresses each phrase as if to make the experience of listening as sensuous as possible and I have never seen a singer who can be so creative while keeping his mouth almost closed: for long-held words like “time” his lips were barely open but the distinctive effect was magical.

Mehta’s wide baroque experience helped him to bring a special flair to the Purcell settings, while the piano’s ground bass lent a sometimes unsettling inevitability to the Evening Hymn. The English settings were nicely varied, from the pastoral pleasure of Linden Lea to the infinite loss in Gurney’s setting of Down by the Salley Gardens. The two standouts in the second half were the touchingly beautiful Silent Noon (quite ravishing) and Stamford’s spellbinding La Belle Dame sans Merci which rose to a truly chilling climax. However the show was stolen by the well-chosen encore, a hilarious Handelian take on Old Mother Hubbard which sent up opera seria’s conventions while giving Mehta a chance to show off his operatic gifts with tongue firmly in cheek. Then, as if to reinforce the point, he sang it again with ornamentations, a nice star turn to finish with.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 6th September at venues across the city. For full details go to

Simon Thompson

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