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
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
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
, with the violinists Clarence Myerscough and Irvine
Arditti, ends the disc.