Thursday, September 2, 2010

Jacques Jansen - The Last Baryton Martin

Inspired by a friend's mention of Jacques Jansen, I pulled out a disc of Jansen singing an all Debussy program (four sets/cycles of songs) and reveled in this odd, mysterious music that at once sounds completely modern, yet somehow also like from some otherworldly Ancien Régime.

Jansen's was a light, high baritone that is remarkably dramatic rather than "sweet" (the usual term applied to "light" voices). This is so because of the relaxed intensity he brings to every song. While the voice wasn't really possessed of a myriad of color, Jansen uses it with a remarkable intelligence and skill coloring the texts of the songs in what is really as perfect an example of "acting with the voice" as I have ever heard. I'm not sure what the term would be, but on certain occasions Jansen employs a sort of "French sprechstimme" which mixed with the melodies also flavors the words in a heady, delicious fashion.

In songs such as "La Grotte" he relaxes a sometimes muscular-tone into a dreamy, fluidity that is almost palpably wet, which against the words (always, the words!) is absolutely beautiful.

He can churn up energy to spare (as will be familiar to those who know his Pelleas) opening up the voice at the top of his range into a sound that can (despite having a somewhat smallish voice) summon up the illusion of power.

My friend mentioned how he thought Jansen sounded more like a tenor, and indeed, the Baryton-Martin sound (as best I can tell) was this kind of sound. Even so, Jansen's lower voice is full and relaxed - even at the bottom of his range. But it is the top that is his glory and when he lets loose it is as thrilling as any voice I've ever known.

I first met the Ariettes oubliées in college accompanying perhaps a half dozen sopranos (most of whom slaughtered this music - as I probably did the difficult piano parts) and then heard them first sung by a male - Hughes Cuenod - in a performance that simply did not work for me. (While I like Cuenod very much in other music, an almost "girlish" timbre seems to dominate his performance of these that never felt right to me). When I heard Jansen sing them for the first time, it was a pure "Wow!" moment. Whereas Cuenod's performance was more perfumed and artificial (to me) in Jansen's voice they sound just right.

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