Down by the Salley Gardens – Bejun Mehta, countertenor/ Julius Drake, piano – Harmonia mundi HMC 902093, 66:33 *****:
I can’t believe I am giving a countertenor recording five stars; either there is something very wrong with me or very right with Bejun Mehta, and subsequent hearings have confirmed that it is indeed him. It might seem a long way from boy soprano to cellist to award-winning producer (Janos Starker’s last recording of the Bach Suites on RCA) to acclaimed countertenor, but that is exactly the road that Mehta has traversed.
Gone is my main complaint about this brand of singer—the lack of power and depth in the voice. Mehta has that aplenty, and in fact might be criticized for using it a little too often in some of the more subtle and quiet pieces here. I said might, because in fact, despite some opinions to the contrary in cyberspace, I think he is very effective in all the music he performs on this disc, and that the lack of subtlety is just an illusion put forth by the nature of the high male voice. Where substance is demanded he provides it, and when he needs to quiet down he does so very effectively.
What I think is a more realistic criticism also has nothing to do with the artist himself but genuinely with the nature of the countertenor voice is a lack of coloration. Hearing some of these songs, all taken from English composers of the first half of the 20th century, in the hands of other artists, lower male or female voices, is an easier time of adjusting the color of the vocal instrument to the needs of the texts. Mehta tries but is often let down, not from artistry but from nature itself. Nevertheless, I can honestly say that these gems, each and every one, are well-served by a man who has brought the countertenor idiom roaring into the 21st century, and his miraculous sensibility in the presentation of these pieces, along with an uncanny ability to serve the dramatic instincts of each—often operatic in scope—propels his interpretations into the absolute first rank of recital singing. Pianist Julius Drake is formidable. The sound, from the Teldex Studio in Berlin, is clear, vivid, realistic, and a tad bright. Bravo!