Thursday 5 September 2019

Philippe Sly - a great bass-baritone voice

I am not easily impressed by singers; but when I stumbled across this live recording of a young Canadian bass-baritone called Philippe Sly performing some arias from Handel's Messiah I was immediately impressed; and this was confirmed by several re-listenings to this and other pieces.

Solo singers are born - not made. The quality of a singing voice is essentially God-given; technique can be manufactured - to a considerable extent - by training; but voice quality cannot (although it can, of course, be ruined).

(Intonation - i.e. singing genuinely in-tune - is also mostly natural.)

This chap has an exceptionally elegant and beautiful tone - which seems especially difficult (or at least rare) among bass baritones; who have a distinct tendency to bellow and rasp; and they often have insecure intonation (disguised by wide vibrato).  Sly's quality of tone and intonation are both exceptional throughout his range; his voice smoothly darkens and lightens as it goes higher and lower; and I find myslf looking forward to both extremes.

But of course it is the middle range, where the singer spends most of his 'time' which must be exceptional; and where vocal acting is needed. After all, the bass-baritone roles are the big acting roles in most operas - the villains, or the rogueish and devious type of heroes (the 'Fifth Business' as Robertson Davies - another Canadian - termed them). This is where the 'pointing' of individual words and expression is mostly used - but in most BBs acting comes at the expense of musicality; whereas Sly keeps the musical line in first place throughout, and he 'expresses' (very well) within that.

He also has a way of phrasing the musical lines which is another of those instinctive things... it is what brings a piece of music 'alive'. I've heard this aria sung by several people before - but this is the only time that its musicality and lyricism came-through - and this is because of how Sly phrases it.

It probably does not need adding that, unlike most of the best singers, Sly is distinctly 'easy on the eye' and has a considerable charismatic physical presence. 

If this is a just world, Sly will have a secure and illustrious future, and will leave a legacy of many recordings; meanwhile enjoy the pieces that are available.    


Nathan Wright said...

Wow, Bruce - great find! I see that he's done some Lieder recordings also, eg Fantastic - thanks!

Nancy said...

Oh my goodness, what a find. Phillipe Sly, with a voice sublime.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathan and Nancy - Glad you both agree!

Nancy said...

Nathan, I've been listening to the Lieder 3 part series. So lovely, and transporting. That guitar! That voice!

Jonathan said...

Here's another thanks for letting us know!

In the past I've benefitted from many of your recommendations, like Marriner, Galway, and Gould.

A particularly relevant quote from you: "In other words, people like [flautist James] Galway for the same reason they like a great singer such as Wunderlich, Sutherland or Pavarotti - because they make the loveliest sound and also 'phrase' the music in a way that brings-out its beauty above all else. So by 'great' I mean 'middlebrow great' in the same way that Austen, Dickens and Frost are regarded as great, and not in the way that Joseph Conrad, Henry James or TS Eliot are regarded as great."

I would love to hear of more classical musicians fitting this description.