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Alfred Deller - portrait d’une voix
Written by Jean-Claude Biette; directed by Benoît Jacquot
Booklet in French, English and German; subtitles in French and English; German and Spanish voice-overs; menu in French, English and (sometimes) German
Format 4/3 aspect ratio. Mono. Colour. NTSC (All Regions)
An INA documentary, first broadcast on 2 February 1976; re-mastered 2008
HARMONIA MUNDI HMD9909018 [DVD: 65:00 + CD: 75:56]
Experience Classicsonline

This DVD, produced in France and manufactured in Italy, is a remarkable document, comprising rehearsals, performances and, best of all, rarely-seen personal interviews with the great English counter-tenor, Alfred Deller. 

I met Alfred only twice and that briefly, but sufficient to establish my conviction that the really great artists are essentially humble, and - one might add - thoroughly nice people, unaffected by fame. Further encounters over the years with other artists have served only to support this belief! This is certainly the impression of Deller that one gets from this programme.

Technically the film is acceptable though not outstanding. It is a French production from 1975, but mostly in English since it shows English musicians speaking and singing - here one has French subtitles - the relatively brief French commentary has English subtitles. It has the air of a home video shot by someone who is not very good at keeping the camera steady. The subtitles wobble too, and shimmer in a peculiar manner. Continuity is sometimes rather self-conscious, and two intervals during which for several seconds we gaze for no particular reason at a green field and distant trees suggest moments of repose before and after the intended insertion of a commercial break. Presumably this programme was originally shown on French television, and one has to admit it has in its occasional awkwardness a certain Gallic charm!

But none of this really matters: it is wonderful to have so much of Deller speaking informally in Stour Festival country - at Barton Cottage, his home near Ashford in the Weald of Kent, outside Boughton Aluph church, where he is buried, and at Olantigh House, grandest of the Stour Festival locations. Musical inserts include rehearsals and performances with Alfred’s son Mark, the lutenist Robert Spencer, and the members of the Deller Consort - Honor Sheppard, Paul Elliott, Neil Jenkins and the peerless Maurice Bevan.

The sequence is broadly chronological, from Deller’s days as a choirboy at his local church, to the discovery that he could after puberty continue to sing in the same way but with an added masculine resonance; joining the Canterbury Cathedral choir and being heard by Michael Tippett, for whom, famously, ‘the centuries rolled back’; moving to St Paul’s Cathedral in London; forming the Deller Consort. He had to cope with the shock his voice gave to the unsuspecting listener, but reminds us that all men - be they tenors, baritones or basses - have a head register, a pharyngeal voice; most of them choose not to use it, but they still have it.

But it is the musical qualities that shine through: the recognition of words as the basis of a performance (here he cites Purcell as a composer ‘having a peculiar Genius to express the Energy of English Words, whereby he mov’d the Passions of all his Auditors’, as Henry Playford commented in 1698). Within the basic rhythm, the singer must seize the possibilities offered by the rise and fall and the nuances of the language, depending on the artistry of the individual. Call them ‘Dellerisms’ if you like, but they are fundamental to his passion for the music. To me, the nobility of the voice cannot be gainsaid.

‘Come what may, this is the way I had to go; this is the only way, musically, that I could satisfactorily express what was inside. I felt compelled to do this. … The music we sing, although it was written four hundred years ago, expresses emotions that are timeless, in music worthy of a human being … [which] gets to the very heart of emotion. And this quality speaks across the centuries to a sensitive person. It’s not important that they have little or no knowledge of the thing - it’s the musical experience to which they respond. … This applies to music and to all great art: there is the possibility of being moved, and the possibility of deep appreciation at every level of mental approach.’

This is a two-disc set, one being the DVD (lasting one hour) and the other a ‘bonus’ audio CD (76') with further performances (20 tracks) featuring such regular collaborators as Desmond Dupré (lute) and Robert Elliott (harpsichord), and David Munrow and William Christie among the others. The music encompasses the English lute song composers (including nine Shakespeare settings), Henry Purcell, and the Italians Caccini and Saracini. The longest piece, Alessandro Scarlatti’s Infirmata vulnerata, with the violinists Clarence Myerscough and Irvine Arditti, ends the disc.

Garry Humphreys 

 
 


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