Philippe Jaroussky is one of the most sought-after singers in the world. Whether he’s singing a Vivaldi opera or a 19th Century French chanson, Jaroussky’s sweet-toned countertenor is one of the most beautiful voices in all music. Jaroussky partners with Max Cencic, another great young countertenor and conductor William Christie on Duetti, an album of Italian Baroque chamber cantatas, arias and, you guessed it, duets.
Ariama editor Craig Zeichner spoke with Jaroussky about repertoire, singing with another countertenor and the differences between American and French audiences.
Ariama: I think the first time I heard you sing live was with Max Cencic in Stefano Landi’s Il Sant'Alessio in New York.
Philippe Jaroussky: That was my New York debut at Lincoln Center. Max and I had worked a lot with Bill Christie on Sant Alessio, but also Poppea in Madrid. So I had been thinking about making an album of duets with a countertenor for a long time. But the idea really came from Bill and of course we thought of Italian repertoire.
Ariama: It's easier to sing with somebody you know.
PJ: Yes, of course. What’s interesting is that Max and I have quite different voices and different techniques. Max is more dramatic and has a darker sound while my voice is lighter, so we are in different worlds. But our voices fit well together. It’s interesting that when I heard the CD I thought, “Oh, you sometimes you don’t know who’s singing.”
Ariama: Is it tricky to record two singers of the same voice type?
PJ: We were quite worried about the ranges of each vocal part. Most of the time we wanted the voices crossing each other and not having one voice lower than the other. Max’s voice is darker, but we have almost the same range. Balancing the ranges was maybe the most difficult thing.
Ariama: Let's talk a little about the album's repertoire.
PJ: I’m not sure, but I think that almost all the music is appearing on CD for the first time and this is very exciting. There are some composers, Scarlatti, Bononcini, Marcello and Porpora, whom you know will be high quality. But I remember when I discovered the solo cantata by Mancini on the internet, I thought it was so beautiful. It’s amazing that Mancini was quite famous in his own time but is totally forgotten now.
We really wanted to make this album because Max and I started by recording chamber repertoire and motets by Caldara, Scarlatti and Vivaldi with small groups. We then started to make recordings of opera arias written for castratos, repertoire we both enjoy. But making Duetti was a return to music on a smaller scale that we love too.
This is fascinating music, very experimental. These small works were a kind of laboratory for the composers to find ways to express themselves. In an opera they have to charm and seduce an audience, but in these chamber arias, cantatas and duetti they were expressing something more personal. I like this very much.
Ariama: Countertenor duets will be a new sound for many listeners.
PJ: I hope people are moved when they hear us singing together. This is something quite different and we were a little afraid about how the audience would react to mostly unknown music.
Ariama: I was really struck by the Mancini and Conti pieces.
PJ: You know, the Conti [the aria “Quando veggo un’usignolo”] was one of the last things we put on the program. Max sent me the aria by email and I thought, ‘Yes this is very original music, just fantastic.’
Ariama: I’ve heard Conti’s choral music before, but this was on another level.
PJ: Yes and this is the first recording of an aria from this big cantata that has eight arias. What’s fascinating with Baroque music is that we are not the first generation looking for rare music, but we are still finding incredible things and the search is not finished. For example, Max and I have recorded the opera Artaserse by Leonardo Vinci.
Ariama: The Neapolitan composer?
PJ: Yes, it was one of the most famous operas of its time. This is exactly the type of music that you look at on paper and think it’s a little poor. But then you sing it with orchestra and you realize it’s amazingly clever, efficient and brilliant. I think the recording will be a big surprise. Max and I recorded it with Diego Fasolis, a conductor who has amazing energy and I like very much. You know, the recording was made with all male singers, five countertenors!
Ariama: Because two is not enough and five is just right?
PJ: (laughs) Countertenors are just a big family now! We realized that the fans of Max are not always my fans, sometimes people are pitting our two voices against each other. But Duetti is appealing because you can really enjoy the qualities of both voices and hear we have different sensibilities and different colors. I think it should prove that you don’t have to make a choice between two singers.
Ariama: It’s music making with two human beings, it’s not a tennis match.
PJ: But when you do these types of programs in concert there are always a lot of people who want to know “who won?” I did some recitals last year with Andreas Scholl and I think it was interesting for people to hear the differences in our voices live. There were some people who were, perhaps, expecting some kind of fight between us, but what we wanted to do was show how you can enjoy both. Maybe we are looking at countertenors more closely than other voice types? As a countertenor you sometimes have some limits. Sometimes I would like to be a mezzo-soprano and have a huge range like Bartoli or DiDonato.
Ariama: Fabio Biondi once told me that he likes American audiences because they have a childlike sense of exploration. Do you agree?
PJ: Yes. I think American audiences are quite open minded and I could feel this great reactionin my concerts last year. I did a 2011 concert at Carnegie Hall with L’Arpeggiata and Christina Pluhar and felt that the audience was so open to something new, something fresh. In France we like to put people in a case and sometimes if you want to escape and do cross-over projects people will kill you. In America people are more open to different types of music. When I did the French songs on the album Opium, there was a huge fight because people said those songs were not written for countertenor and I shouldn’t have touched that repertoire.
Ariama: When you recorded the Fauré Requiem and sung the Pie Jesu, was it received better here than in France?
PJ: I can say that in some French papers I was totally killed. It’s not fair. I can be killed for my interpretation, but to say that it was not written for a countertenor is not fair. After all, it wasn’t written for a female voice, but for a boy. But that’s life. The most important thing for an artist is to do what you want to do. A singer has to sing what he likes, so for me the Pie Jesu was a dream.
I was afraid at first and said to the record label [Virgin Classics] ‘Let me think about this, I need time before I say yes because I want to be sure that I could do something good with it.’ That was very important to me. As a Baroque singer I’m more used to recording rare repertoire than very famous things. So recording the Pie Jesu with thousands of different versions out there was much more frightening.
Ariama: I thought it came off beautifully. My favorite versions are yours and the treble singer's on the old King’s College Choir, Cambridge recording with Willocks conducting.
PJ: I tried to keep the fragility and the freshness of a child with the maturity of an adult. It was not easy. I could have sung it more lyrical. Fragility can, at times, be more touching than strength. Fragility can touch people much more than singing as loud as possible.
Ariama: I think of the American jazz saxophonist Lester Young and the singer Billie Holiday, who at the end of their lives made beautiful fragile music.
PJ: An artist of any kind you has many things to prove when they are young. You have to prove you can play well or sing well or that you can sing this piece or that piece. That you can sing in a big hall or sing virtuosic, all very frightening. After years and years you realize that the most important thing is not to impress people but to touch people. An artist who is older has a greater distance from this need to prove himself.
Ariama: What has been proved is in the past.
PJ: Yes, like an actor.
Ariama: Mature actors are sometimes more interesting than young ones.
PJ: Of course. A young actor has, for example, beauty. People like Natalie Portman or Brad Pitt (when he was very young) were incredibly beautiful. But the way they are growing older gives them something else. For a singer, a young voice has great flexibility, but it’s something you will lose in time. That’s why I’m thinking more and more that in the next five years that I’d like to sing more Bach, Purcell and Dowland, all less virtuosic but very musical.
Ariama: You are such a busy guy, how do you relax?
PJ: I try to stay in Paris when I can because I love it. Traveling is becoming a drag. So next year I will relax much more because I’m going to take an eight- month holiday, a small sabbatical. It will be interesting to travel without concerts, a different kind of travel.
Ariama: Travel at your own pace.
PJ: Of course I’m very lucky. When I’m traveling for concerts everybody is caring for me. I go to the hotel and a car is waiting for me. I think it’s important for me to travel as a normal person where nobody knows me and I just get to meet people, it must be easier to meet people this way.