Thursday 4 December 2008

A paean

Over at La Maison Verte in September, I had a slightly silly dinner conversation with Robert Hollingworth. I'd been listening to Emma Kirkby on an old tape of Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen and got talking to Berty (ooh, do go and have another look at his site - I've made all the improvements that were suggested, and would love to know what you think) about her, and what it is about her voice that makes it so distinctive. She is one of the only classical singers I can reliably identify, and I love the clarity of her tone, and the way you can always hear the sweetness of her personality coming through. I saw her give a masterclass at Clare College once, and she was, I thought, terribly nice. Not in a soppy way: an essential sweetness of nature. Just as you'd expect from her voice.

Anyway, I got at cross purposes with Robert while trying to ask him the same question (which Berty, unless I've forgotten his answer because I was pissed, didn't have a very definite answer to), because he thought I was talking about Clare Wilkinson. Which was pretty logical, because he knows that A and I (do I need to carry on calling him A? I'm not going to get internationally syndicated at this stage, am I?) are huge fans.

So. Hands up if you don't know who Clare Wilkinson is. Okay. She is a mezzo-soprano. We first encountered her in I Fagiolini - I think I saw her first in The Birds, and then the first time we saw The Full Monteverdi we were sat, thrillingly, next to her. She also sings with the Dunedin Consort, and with Alamire, and probably with other groups I'm too slow to know about yet.

There is something really arresting about her stage presence, and there is something truly fabulous about her singing. I think the essence is that she has wonderful technique coupled with cast-iron musicianship (a funny word, that: do we use it simply to mean good taste?).

Anyway. She's got a huge range, and all of it sounds gorgeous, and you can't hear the joins. She's got amazing breath control, but she never sings through lines in that very Cambridge way that shouts 'Listen to me not taking a breath!'. She doesn't over-enunciate, but somehow her diction is crystal clear. Her tone is beautiful, but she never seems to wallow in it - and it's not bland; it has texture, and it's totally distinctive: she's always identifiable. Which is what made me realise that actually I love her voice for many of the same reasons that I love Kirkby's: I can always identify it, and I feel that it conveys what she's like.

I guess it's partly that all the stuff I've said tells you that her ego is always sublimated to the music. But there's also something really tangible about the sweetness of her tone. Is there a better word? Sweetness sounds cloying, and she isn't a bit.

Being able to hear the person, and the personality, is definitely a personal preference of mine: it's why I generally prefer amateur voices to professional ones. I've always loathed that really 'trained' classical sound with the mouth full of plums. The archetype of this, for me, is a recording I've got of the Faure Requiem with Janet Baker singing the 'Pie Jesu'. The vowels are all so rounded and dark she sounds as though she's about to throw up. Horrible.

Another thing about Clare is that her face expresses the emotions of the music, not the difficulty of the singing. I don't think your face should tell the audience that singing is hard - those sopranos who sing with their eyebrows permanently raised make me feel tired.

Anyway, enough of me wurbling away: go and listen to Clare (go to her website and click on Listen), and come back and tell me whether what I've said makes any sense at all. Actually, I think most of the singers in I Fagiolini are pretty special, and the group itself is quite remarkable, but Clare really does stand out.

This posting has been sitting about for a long time: I made the mistake of writing it in my head but not getting it onto paper (you know what I mean) soon enough. Then A read it and didn't really like it. My theory is that this is because it's unusual to write unreserved praise for anything, especially a person. Being English, we are embarrassed by the very notion. But I also think that one tends to assume that anyone who's really good, and reasonably well known, knows that they are and gets told so frequently, and in fact that's not the case at all.

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