Such is the growing popularity of the solo countertenor voice that in this past week I was able to hear four countertenor performances in London – Philippe Jaroussky, Randall Scotting, Iestyn Davies and Max Emanuel Cenčić. What I find exciting about this current crop of countertenors in their 20s and 30s is that a) their voices are so varied and individual, each with different vocal ranges and strengths, and b) their repertoire is no longer about singing Handel and Bach, but they are all exploring neglected repertoire of the 17th and 18th centuries, especially music sung by renowned castrati.

Max Emanuel Cenčić © Beetroot | Decca Classics
Max Emanuel Cenčić
© Beetroot | Decca Classics

Max Emanuel Cenčić, who made his Wigmore Hall debut on Friday, has been especially active in resurrecting forgotten operatic repertoire of the 18th century including Vinci and Hasse. I first heard him on stage earlier this year in the production of Vinci’s Artaserse at Versailles where he made a strong impression. More recently he has focused on the operas of Johann Adolf Hasse, and the recording of his opera Siroe with Cenčić singing the title role has just come out, as well as his album of Hasse’s operatic arias.

Yet for his Wigmore Hall recital, he didn’t bring the Hasse programme but a selection of delightful operatic gems from Vivaldi and his Venetian contemporaries such as Albinoni, Gasparini and Porta, repertoire he recorded on his disc entitled “Venezia”. The arias were interspersed with sinfonias and concertos performed by the small string-only forces of the Baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro directed from the violin by Riccardo Minasi. Cenčić sang with poise and flawless technique; his voice is warm, elegant and virtuosic, and there is a uniformity of tone throughout the range, (which on this show was almost two octaves from A flat below middle c to g’). However, especially in the first half, there were moments when he seemed a little cautious or detached, and the performance didn’t quite catch fire.

The concert opened with an incisive performance of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in C major RV181a. Minasi, standing in the middle of the stage as soloist/director, played with vibrancy and articulate phrasing. The Adagio, accompanied only by the continuo, was beautifully rendered with exquisite ornamentation in the da capo section – equal in elegance to Cencic himself. Cenčić performed four arias in the first half, two slow and two fast and furious. The two gentle arias, Albinoni’s “Pianta bella” and Gasparini’s “Dolce mio ben” were sung suavely and with sustained tone and beautifully phrased melismas. Caldara’s angry aria “Barbaro, non comprendo” was musically intriguing with some unexpected harmonic twists and turns. Vivaldi’s fast arias demand athletic singing and “Mi vuoi tradir” is no exception. Cenčić gave a lively account of this furious aria displaying his virtuosic technique, matched by the articulate playing from Il Pomo d’Oro.

The second half opened with an instrumental work by Galuppi. I have to admit that this ensemble-aria-aria-ensemble-aria-aria format in Baroque vocal recitals can get a bit weary (especially when there aren’t strong programmatic links between the arias and the concerti). I appreciate that singers need a break between virtuosic arias but surely it could be done a little more imaginatively? I hasten to add that Il Pomo d’Oro’s performance was vibrant and stylish and Minasi’s playing in Vivaldi’s violin concerto in E minor RV277 Il favorito was terrific, almost stealing the show.

Things did heat up in the second half, probably because the arias were musically more substantial and interesting. The most expressive and dramatic singing came in Giacomelli’s renowned aria “Sposa, non mi conosci” from Merope, which was sung with exquisite vocal control, especially in the melismas on the word “speranza”. Here Cenčić really seemed to pour his whole heart in the aria. He closed the recital proper with Vivaldi’s buoyant “Anche in mezzo aperigliosa” from the opera L’odio vinta dalla costanza which was sung brilliantly with spirit, finally letting his hair down.

Cenčić seemed almost more at home in the two Hasse encores he offered. Particularly in the second encore “Vó disperato a morte” (from the opera Tito Vespasiano), he brought out the dramatic contrast between the stormy and virtuosic 'A' section and the melodic and introspective 'B' section, bringing the house down. I felt that in these Hasse encores he finally displayed the dramatic flair that he is capable on the operatic stage. I hope next time he will bring a production of a Hasse opera to London.