|Max Emanuel Cenčić (photo Anna Hoffmann)|
Happy Birthday Max Emanuel Cenčić ! And it's also the 35th anniversary of his first stage appearance, when he sang Der Hölle Rache kocht from Die Zauberflöte, aged only 6. He went on to sing with the Wiener Sängerknaben, where he was a star soloist. Aged 11 he was the boy soprano in Anton Nanut's cult classic Mahler Symphony no 4. (of which more below). I first heard him live when he was 17 - still a male soprano, his voice intact and unbroken, all the more moving because one knew it couldn't possibly remain so pure forever. He was singing Schubert. The DOM pianist was salivating, which spoiled the performance. But thanks to innate musicality, a good "instrument" and flawless technique, Cenčić remained a soprano by training his voice meticulously so it kept its freshness and agility.
Cenčić pioneered the modern Fach of male soprano, of whom there are now quite a few. In his 20's he retrained it again,to countertenor, opening up a much wider range of repertoire. Now, aged 41, he's at the top of his profession, a megastar in the world of baroque, and perhaps the best Italianate countertenor in the business. Cenčić's so good, and so charismatic, that he's pioneering the spread of that highly specialized genre. A true groundbreaker ! Congratulations, Max Cenčić, long may you reign !
Back to that Mahler 4 which remains unique to this day. Cenčić recorded it with Anton Nanut and the Ljubljana Radio Symphony back in 1991. It was an interesting experience, since the final movement of the symphony, normally done by adult soprano, depicts a young child, singing in Heaven of the earthly delights of childhood. I've written extensively about this symphony and its interpretation - please click on the label below. In theory, why not cast a kid ? But it's a difficult part and requires stamina, which is why it is almost always done by an adult. Cenčić struggles, and Nanut holds the orchestra back so it doesn't smother him. Doing M4 with a boy is thus a test, both of singer and of conductor, so it's pretty much given that it's almost impossible to pull off right. Allowances have to be made. I love this performance because it sounds truly fragile and vulnerable,. The kid is dead, after all, and has suffered, which is why he gets excited about food. For some people this vulnerability is distressing. But that's why it's worth seeking out this performance. We can focus on the sunniness of this symphony, but if we ignore the cruelty and irony behind it, we're missing out. For that reason, I don't like Bernstein's recording with a boy treble, because he sounds too "knowing", even a bit smug. As far as I'ver been able to find out, Bernstein didn't give much in the way of musical justification. No-one else has done so since, as far as I know.
But I would not dismiss the idea of a treble outright for that reason. On 27th September, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is conducting Mahler 4 with a boy treble with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, part of a large and ambitious programme. The British choral tradition is stronger than in most countries, and British trebles are its keynote. Kids win scholarships to posh schools and Oxbridge on the basis of their singing, like football players get to college in the US. If a treble M4 is ever going to work, it needs an unusually good singer and a sensitive conductor. The CBSO youth choir is way above average,so this sounds promising.