Countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic is no stranger to the London concert scene, but this was his first solo recital in the UK. In this respect he is something of a latecomer. Fellow countertenors Franco Fagioli and Philippe Jaroussky have already beaten a path to the Wigmore Hall – in Jaroussky’s case, as recently as last week.
These days, concerts by high-voiced men are commonplace. “I haven’t felt like a freak since the 1990s,” jokes Cencic. “Then, it was something very new for audiences. But not now in the 2000s.” Nevertheless, for him, singing as a countertenor is about performing the music with precision and integrity rather than imitating the castrati of the past. “We don’t really know what they sounded like, anyway,” he comments. “Most writers at the time just said that they sounded like women. I don’t think their voices were stronger than female singers. You must take into account that it was the costume restrictions of women – things like corsets – that gave female singers less strength. And I think the female parts are more difficult.”
Cencic insists that the fame of the castratos lay as much in their notoriety as in their performing abilities. “I think that one has to understand that getting people to come to the opera was a business, and the theatre owners exaggerated the abilities of the castrati in order to fill seats.” His interest in the music rather than the star singers of Baroque opera partly accounts for his reluctance to record a disc of arias associated with any particular castrato – something which other countertenors have done. “I don’t think it’s so important. I am more interested to discover different styles. I am quite interested in the life of Senesino, but if I did a recording, it would nearly all be Handel, and I don’t just want to do that.”
For his debut Wigmore recital, Cencic chose to sing operatic arias by Vivaldi and his Venetian contemporaries. He has recorded all of these on a disc released in 2013, so it was surprising to see him sing from scores rather than memory. Occasionally, one also got the feeling that he was pedalling through well-worn territory. His voice is undoubtedly special, with a dark, silky quality in the lower registers, and a firm yet flexible tone up top. But an aria like ‘Barbaro, non comprendo’ from Antonio Caldara’s 1732 Adriano in Siria didn’t quite convince in its bold stridency. The clarity of the words in some arias was also blurred now and again during trickier passages. Much more affecting – and greatly appreciated by the Wigmore audience – was his delivery of ‘Sposa, non mi conosci’ from Geminiano Giacomelli’s 1734 opera Merope. Here, he held a near perfect balance between tragic nobility and pitiful desperation.
Cencic wasn’t the only artist to make his debut on the Wigmore stage. The period instrumental ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro under their founder, director and solo violinist Ricardo Minasi impressed as much as Cencic with their talent and technical skill. They provided sympathetic support during Cencic’s arias (which they have also recorded with him), and offered fresh, thrilling interpretations of concertos by Vivaldi, Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello and Baldassare Galuppi. Minasi is clearly a brilliant violinist, expressing his skill and passion for the Venetian Baroque repertoire with a rare sense of enjoyment.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.