Alfred Deller Magic

A real boon to see the American Vanguard catalogue return to local circulation by stages, especially some matchless recordings by the countertenor Alfred Deller, ‘the daddy of them all’ in my view, not just because his actual voice is so beautiful but because of Deller’s musicality, his phrasing, the way he colours the line and reduces his tone to the quietest pianissimo. Modern scholarship might baulk at the sweet-toned style (sometimes) but no one surely could question such elevated artistry. The first volume of ‘Alfred Deller: the complete Vanguard recordings’ (Vanguard Classics MC193) extracts folk songs and ballads from a number of Deller’s original lp releases for the Vanguard label, including arranged ‘Tavern Songs, Catches and Glees’ Volumes One and Two, ‘The Cries of London’, ‘Tavern Songs’ Volume Two, ‘The Three Ravens’, ‘The Wraggle Taggle Gipsies’, ‘Folk Song Album’ (arrangements by Vaughan Williams), ‘English Lute Songs’, ‘Awake Sweet Love’, ‘The Cruel Mother’, ‘The Western Wind’, and so on. And there are the other singers, often contributing to a beautiful tonal blend, April Cantelo, Honor Sheppard, Wilfrid Brown, Gerald English, Edgar Fleet, Owen Grundy and Maurice Bevan and the Ambrosian Singers, some tracks with the London Chamber Players, others, mostly the ones where Deller sings solo, with Desmond Dupré playing the lute. There’s also a bonus CD-ROM with all the original notes and texts so when you access the texts for the first disc ‘A choice collection of the most diverting Catches, composed by Mr. Henry Purcell,’ and you check out track 5 ‘Once, twice, thrice’, you can confirm …. yes that is what they were singing! I shan’t let on further.  But if it’s beauty you want to sample first then Deller solo has to be your initial port of call, preferably ‘In Darkness let me Dwell’ (disc 5, track 3), once so well known from an earlier version on a plumb-label HMV 78 but just as entrancing here. I can’t wait for further volumes, Deller’s version of the ‘Agnus dei’ from Bach’s B minor Mass being one of my ‘Desert Island Discs’.

So how do you reckon Deller in comparison with say Scholl, Jarrousky and other modern countertenors? Does the style of singing ‘age’? I’d be interested to know what you think.




6 thoughts on “Alfred Deller Magic

  1. Sarah Moyse

    Alfred Deller or Andreas Scholl! What a choice! They are both wonderful and wonderfully different. I wouldn’t want to be without either! Nor do I want to compare them – they are both unique and uniquely wonderful.
    If I remember rightly Deller wasn’t perfectly appreciated in his own lifetime, which is the greatest shame of it. Didn’t someone else get to sing Oberon which was written for him?


    1. Thanks for that Sarah. According to my sources Deller did sing Oberon at the 11/6/60 premiere (Britten himself conducted), though I don’t know what happened after that. As to both Scholl and Deller being ‘unique and uniquely wonderful’, of course – it’s just that it can be interesting to compare/focus stylistic strengths. Best wishes and thanks again for writing. Rob


  2. Dennis Jenkins

    Hi Rob
    I would also say that they are both beyond comparison and are uniquely great in each of their own styles. I certainly do not think that Alfred Deller’s style of singing has ‘aged’ in the same way as some reviewers talk about some performances being ‘out of date’ simply because they were recorded some years ago. This seems to happen a lot now with historically informed performances with comments like ‘things have now moved on’. I still enjoy many of Trevor Pinnock’s recordings in preference to some more recent attempts. For me, it’s the quality of the music rather than just the scholarship that is important.
    It’s good to see many of Alfred Deller’s Vanguard recordings coming back. I sing in the Stour Festival Choir conducted by his son Mark Deller and do remember attending some concerts at the Stour Festival by Alfred just before he died. I would say also that he paved the way in our understanding of the counter tenor voice and brought the music of many, particularly Purcell to the fore.
    Dennis Jenkins


    1. ‘I still enjoy many of Trevor Pinnock’s recordings in preference to some more recent attempts.’ That made me smile Dennis because for me – and I guess for some people reading this – Pinnock’s style is still relatively new (compared with say Marriner, Boyd Neel, Beecham, etc). But I take your point. Things don’t ‘move on’ performance wise, just shift perspective – and may just as easily shift back again. Best. Rob.


  3. Magic indeed.I suspect that the other counter-tenors would still be in their choirstalls or singing baritone if it wasn’t for Alfred, and the people who got him out of his.
    I’m just finishing writing a book about him, and have come to the conclusion – in a nutshell – that the Oberon business was simply deeply unfortunate. Britten liked him and wanted him for Covent Garden, but the Covent Garden management didn’t agree, and for far too long nobody told Alfred what was going on. But he got to record it for Britten in the end.
    There’s a lot more too it than that, of course. The book will be published by me at Stour next June – keep an eye on for information. There is very little there at the moment, but it will come in due course.
    Rob, could you contact me please.


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