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Charles Daniels: “why haven’t we heard of him?”

(First in a series of four occasional articles)

A few years ago, I went to the Corbridge Music Festival, and one of the pieces in the first of the two concerts I went to was Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge. There was no subdued buzz of excitement as the tenor stood up to sing; almost nobody in the building knew anything about him. But, as the piece finished and the interval started, I found myself surrounded by astonished voices. “That tenor is magnificent!” they exclaimed. “Who is he? Why haven’t we heard of him?”

In this article I would like to answer those questions.

Charles Daniels

The name of the tenor who so delighted the Corbridge audience is Charles Daniels. If you are a fan of baroque or early music, you very probably have heard of him, although you may still not have heard much in the way of solo voice work from him. The overwhelming majority of his recordings are choral, and on such a recording it can be difficult to assess an individual singer’s ability. I have chosen a selection of recordings which do enable you to judge his voice clearly, and I will be discussing these in the next article.

However, if your musical interests mostly lie outside these areas, you are fairly unlikely to have heard of him, and, as the Vaughan Williams fans in Corbridge discovered, that is a great pity. Charles has the sort of light, highly controlled voice that is very much in demand for baroque and early music; you will never find him singing Nessun dorma or O sole mio. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of music requiring a tenor that is neither pre-1750 nor operatic, and which suits his voice just as admirably as the earlier music does. Charles’ repertoire stretches from the ninth century to the present day, and on more than one occasion he has sung in the premiere performance of a new piece with the composer present.

So why had the audience in Corbridge not heard of him? Part of the reason is that he seems to have become rather typecast in the eyes of the recording industry. He has made few recordings of more recent music; there are one or two, the most notable perhaps being Kilar’s Missa pro Pace in which he was the only non-Polish performer, but they do not really reflect the proportion of such music that he sings. (I believe he has recorded the Vaughan Williams piece that got them so excited, but it is buried away on a massive compilation album which, from memory, runs to five CDs.) Astonishingly, he has not even had the chance to record his Schubert Lieder, which are one of his standbys when asked to do a solo concert; I have heard him sing Schubert twice, which he does with much feeling and gusto.

Another reason is that he is not a self-publicist. In fact, he is extremely diffident about his own ability. I run his official fan site and discussion forum, and he is very good at keeping me updated with his concert information, but trying to get him to do so with the recordings is another matter. He hates the sound of his own recorded voice, and I am quite sure he thinks that if he tells me about his recordings I may buy them and have my teeth set on edge. This is despite the fact that I now own quite a number of them and have never had anything to complain about regarding his singing; there are some I dislike because of the production and others simply because of the material he is singing, but those are different matters.

On the baroque and early music scene, it does not matter that Charles is so diffident about publicity, because he has done enough work to be well known and recognised anyway. Outside that musical scene, he has fewer established figures to recommend him to others. Generally, those who exist are people who have worked with him in that area and then moved somewhat outside it, rather than people who think of him primarily as a tenor who can sing Schubert or Vaughan Williams or Britten. And yet he is as comfortable with any of those composers as he is with Bach, Handel or Purcell, and he is always keen to be involved in musical experiments. Timothy Roberts, former principal keyboard player for the Gabrieli Consort, is also an accomplished composer, conductor and arranger, and in 1996 he wrote a short song-cycle called Dog Star Gazing based on poems by Pete Brown. These songs, very modern in style, show off the virtuoso qualities of Charles’ voice in an extraordinary way; Timothy Roberts plays harpsichord continuo, while the singing and all other vocal effects are done with obvious relish by Charles. The whole cycle is available on YouTube via this page, which also includes links to music by other composers which he has arranged for Charles.

Another musical experiment of a quite different nature in which Charles has been involved was during his time as a regular member of the Orlando Consort, with whom he still occasionally works when other commitments allow. The group joined forces with the jazz ensemble Perfect Houseplants to create two mediaeval/jazz crossover albums, a fascinating idea and one which, in my own opinion, does not always quite work but sounds absolutely wonderful when it does.

In the next article, as I said above, I will be looking at some of Charles’ recordings, which I have specifically chosen as a good introduction to his remarkable voice for those who are not yet familiar with it. Inevitably, because of the nature of his recorded output, these will mostly be recordings of baroque and early music. Yet I hope I have shown in this article that there is a great deal more to Charles than that, and given him a worthy introduction to those who do not normally listen to music in these genres. He has a voice for all of us, not just for those of us who, like me, are musically at their happiest several hundred years in the past.