Performing as part of Beacon Hill’s Church of St. John the Evangelist Wednesday evening concert series, Yakov Zamir engaged in a brief, albeit necessary, lecture on the difficulties of what he was about to perform prior to his recital on the evening of December 28. It was less an excuse and more a statement of something we’re wont to forget: practically every Western musical tradition had its response to the male soprano — Italy championed the castrato, while England developed the counter-tenor. Not to be outdone, it seems, France developed its haute-contre in Zamir’s description, i.e., voice that would sound higher than the male tenor. The difficulty, as Zamir laid out, is that we do not know what the haute-contre, let alone any of these voices, really sounded like.
The performance was impressively educational: presenting a sound that is somehow simultaneously formidable and affable, Zamir engaged a rapt audience with his understanding of the French haute-contre voice in 12 arias from 12 French operas in collaboration with Juliet Cunningham on piano. Zamir’s voice immediately gave the volume and gravitas of a rich, full contralto sound in the opening “Bois épais” from Lully’s 1684 opera Amadis — a stately aria on the edge of recit — that withstood Cunningham’s robust accompaniment. Other such arias, such as a “Je crois entendre encore” transposed from Bizet’s 1863 Les pecheurs de perles or “La fleur que tu m’avais jetee” transposed from his Carmen (1875) revelled in this rich sound.
Tuning in the later arias of the program suffered, ostensibly from exhaustion. Yet, in addition to the full qualities of Zamir’s haute-contre, it’s difficult not to be amused, even charmed, by the lyrical qualities of his voice, a lightness that becomes a countertenor, that showed itself in the more blithe arias of the evenings. “Mes amis ecoutez l’histoire,” transposed from Adolphe Adam’s Le Postillon de Longjumeau (1836), or “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!” transposed from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment (1840), exposed a remarkable range and flexibility in Zamir’s instrument.
Although certainly developed for Baroque and early Classical music, the combination of Zamir’s rich timbre with remarkable flexibility were somehow ideal for the late Romantic works. Wednesday evening’s successful collaboration between Zamir and Cunningham culminated in “Vainement, ma bien aimée,” transposed from Lalo’s Le Roy d’Ys (1888) and “Pourquoi me réveiller” transposed from Massenet’s Werther (1892); both were nothing short of beautiful. Zamir’s haute-contre eschewed sometimes over-blown Romantic sensibilities for a somehow fragile reading that was inherent to his higher range, an interpretation that was supported nicely with Cunningham’s sensitve accompaniment.
The evening’s performance concluded with a encore of Massenet’s Élégie–a reading that nicely summarized all that was wonderful about Zamir and Cunningham’s collaboration on Wednesday evening.
St. John’s concert series continues at the lovely church on Bowdoin Street, Beacon Hill, on January 4th, with a piano recital by Keane Southard.