V0479. RUSSELL OBERLIN, w.Albert Fuller (Harpsichord) & Thomas Dunn Cond.: Handel Arias. (E.U.) DG 477 6541, recorded 1959, in gatefold Jacket. Very long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 028947765417
“Russell Oberlin, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated countertenors, whose voice was famed for an earthy robustness that belied the ethereal heights to which it could ascend, was Ideally possessed of a haunting, otherworldly beauty, the voice of a countertenor is comparable in range to that of an alto. Today, countertenors, among them David Daniels, Drew Minter and Derek Lee Ragin, are legion on opera stages, in recital halls and on recordings. But in the mid-20th century, there were just two of international repute: the English countertenor Alfred Deller and Mr. Oberlin. Both men were credited with helping spur the modern renaissance of the countertenor and the corresponding early-music revival of the postwar years - with Mr. Oberlin, an Ohio native, at the center of the movement in the United States.
Critics lauded Mr. Oberlin for his sensitive phrasing, crystalline diction and full, warm, vibrato-rich tone that was devoid of the brittleness and hootiness that for countertenors are looming occupational hazards. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, he was a ubiquitous presence, recording extensively and performing as a member of early-music ensembles; as a soloist with orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic; and in recital. ‘Over the past 10 years, habitual New York concertgoers have become well acquainted with a slim young man whose boyish face and carrot-red hair make him instantly identifiable on any concert stage’, Allen Hughes wrote in THE NEW YORK TIMES in 1961, ‘and they know that when he tilts his head slightly to one side and begins to sing — to sing as though his very life depended upon it — the sound of his voice will be quite unlike any they had been accustomed to prior to his arrival on our scene’.
Mr. Oberlin often sang early music like Handel, John Dowland and William Byrd, the countertenor’s meat and potatoes. He was an original member of New York Pro Musica Antiqua, the esteemed early-music ensemble founded in 1952 and later known as New York Pro Musica. But he also sang new music. In the role of Oberon, Mr. Oberlin gave the North American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s opera A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, in Vancouver in 1961, as well as the United States premiere, with the San Francisco Opera, that year. He appeared as Oberon at Covent Garden, in a 1961 staging produced by John Gielgud and conducted by Georg Solti. (Mr. Deller had sung the role in the Opera’s world premiere, at the Aldeburgh Festival in England in 1960.) On Broadway, Mr. Oberlin performed incidental music by Leonard Bernstein for Jean Anouilh’s drama THE LARK (1955) and by Lee Hoiby for John Webster’s tragedy THE DUCHESS OF MALFI (1957).
A particularly noteworthy aspect of Mr. Oberlin’s voice was that unlike many countertenors before him — Mr. Deller included — and many after, he did not need to resort to falsetto to reach the highest notes. The result, reviewers concurred, was an aural seamlessness throughout his range, without a hint of strain.
In 1951, as a high tenor, the young Mr. Oberlin earned a diploma in voice from the Juilliard School, where his teachers included the baritone Evan Evans. A decade later, encouraged by Noah Greenberg, one of Pro Musica’s founders, he became an unalloyed countertenor. ‘I simply found’, Mr. Oberlin told THE TIMES in 1961, ‘that the more I sang the higher parts the easier they became’. He added: ‘I can sing falsetto, but I really can’t go much higher that way than I can otherwise, and the quality is not the same’. Choosing to retire at his peak, Mr. Oberlin renounced active performing in 1966, at 38. ‘People say, ‘Oh, it’s too bad you had a short career’, he told OPERA NEWS in 1999. ‘And I say, ‘Well, I was singing professionally when I was 6’.’ A powerful index of Mr. Oberlin’s midcentury renown comes from an improbable source: the composer Peter Schickele, whose alter ego is the fictional Baroque composer P.D.Q. Bach. In the early 1960s, while Mr. Schickele was teaching at Juilliard (and before his comic counterpart had emerged full blown), he wrote the mock-Baroque cantata IPHIGENIA IN BROOKLYN, later attributed to P.D.Q. It was scored for countertenor and highly motley chamber ensemble.”
- Margalit Fox, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 29 Nov., 2016