To Touch, To Kiss, To Die: English Songs of Purcell, Matteis, Dowland
Valer Barna-Sabadus (countertenor)
Olga Watts (harpsichord), Axel Wolf (lute), Pavel Serbin (cello)
OEHMS Classics OC 870

The Romanian countertenor Valer Barna-Sabadus came to prominence with his first solo album ‘Hasse Reloaded’ (OC 830) which introduced us to his high, bright tone and excellent facility for fast passage-work. This new disc of English songs offers an altogether more intimate atmosphere ranging from the quick-witted gestures of Purcell to the wistful sentiments of Dowland, and there are also songs by Nicola Matteis, an Italian violinist working in London who impressed the biographer Roger North. Indeed, it is these songs by Matteis that create the central point of this programme, and are well worth knowing, framed as they are by the more familiar Purcell and Dowland.

Barna-Sabadus has an instantly attractive and clear timbre which brings freshness to the better-known songs. He’s a high-countertenor, seemingly at ease in the upper registers and, most importantly, able to maintain the tessitura set by this programme. His best singing is, for me, in Purcell’s songs where he displays a fine intelligence for negotiating the recitative-like sections and makes easy transitions between the various meters. In the slower, longer melancholic phrases of Dowland his beautiful, sparkling tone can occasionally feel inappropriately cheery and this only serves to highlight the occasional stumble over those awkward English dipthongs (‘from the highest spire…’ etc). Having said that, I admire his ability to capture an atmosphere of stillness, if not outright melancholy, and for this reason his performance of ‘I saw my Lady Weep’ is quite superb.

The three instrumentalists, who are sensitive accompanists, step into the limelight more than once. In Poole’s S. Justinas for viola da gamba solo, played by Pavel Serbin, we hear the impressively dexterous playing of all three captured in this most attractive set of divisions.
This is beautifully balanced programme full of atmosphere and charm. Barna-Sabadus is clearly an important young voice on the countertenor scene and his intelligent and intimate approach to song on this album comes highly recommended.

Ed Breen