CLASSICAL MUSIC: Michael Chance Recital; Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
All countertenors sound alike. You only have to listen to the half-jokey The Three Countenors CD to realise that this is arrant nonsense. With over 50 recordings to his credit, Michael Chance's voice is prized for its evenness and beauty, most recently heard in the first of the latest season of Radio 3's Wednesday Rush Hour concerts, broadcast live from the Wigmore Hall. Wisely, he opened with Tippett's Three Songs for Ariel, derived from a production of The Tempest at the Old Vic in 1962. The songs were written with an actor rather than a trained singer in mind, giving himself the opportunity to warm up. These were followed by a group of three Purcell songs, two of which were arranged by Tippett, who was almost single-handedly responsible for the Purcell revival - and with it the appearance of the countertenor voice. Chance faltered on the third, a dark arrangement of "In the black dismal dungeon of despair" by Benjamin Britten, from what sounded like dryness, but was easily forgiven by an audience still basking in the glowing purity of his "Music for awhile". The song shows off his finest qualities, notably his limpid, floating tone when he bravely drains the vibrato from his voice, a beautifully languorous evocation of the words "Music for awhile/ Shall all your cares beguile."

The other prevailing myth about the countertenor voice is its supposedly ethereal other-worldly quality. Chance is one of several who are taking steps to remedy this with a series of commissions. Despite his early job as jazz correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, Philip Larkin does not leap to mind as first port of call when looking for song settings, but Anthony Powers has taken six of his poems for his cycle High Windows.

Ironically, those relying on baldness of expression come off best. The pewter light of "Dublinesque" is coolly evoked in the atmospheric piano writing, Julius Drake allowing the gently rhythmic accompaniment to touch in the passing funeral. Chance rose to the occasion with marvellously secure intonation and highly assured singing, but the dramatic demands of the setting require more than simply a wide range of dynamics. The heart of the writing proved tantalisingly elusive.

Similar problems arose with Chance's novel interpretations of Butterworth's sublime baritone settings of Housman's A Shropshire Lad. "When I was one- and-twenty" ends with the repetition of the phrase "`Tis true." Here, it sounded lovely, the tone resonant and flowing, but the heartfelt poignancy was missing. Butterworth's writing relies to a large extent on the solidity and openness of the baritone voice. Transposing the line up pushes the texts on to a different level of emotional intensity. You feel at one remove, admiring the singer rather than the songs. Chance should be applauded for expanding the countertenor repertoire but until he lets the material take precedence over technique, he'll leave us feeling slightly short- changed. David Benedict