Some years ago a friend gave me a CD in which two English sopranos, Emma Kirkby and Evelyn Tubb, sing duets and solos by Monteverdi; the first seven items on it, all in Italian, are secular, and the following seven, in Latin, are sacred. The singing of the former bowled me over at first hearing. Her voice is by no means big, lacking the force which allowed Joan Sutherland to fill an opera house, and indeed the only operatic item on this CD, by far the longest on it, is sung by Tubb, but Kirkby’s voice is rich, clear and precise. Sometimes it quivers with nervous energy, like trills being played on a harpsichord, and in her solo Exulta filia Sion she jumps surefootedly and apparently effortlessly from note to note, but the overriding impression is of a voice with great poise that has everything under control.
The chance hearing on the radio of another soprano who brings very different strengths to baroque music led me to order from an online supplier a CD in which Nuria Rial sings Duetti Amorosi by Handel with a counter tenor, Lawrence Razzo. The qualities of the Spanish singer are harder to express, and not made easier to appreciate by the way that, in most of these items, the two voices are entwined around each other, just as their fingers seem on the verge of becoming entwined in a picture on the cover notes, but her style is dramatic and apparently carefree. She gives the impression of never troubling to think about the note she’s about to leap to, but wondrously she hits it every time. Her seemingly relaxed approach is quite different to that of Emma Kirkby.
I’m going to resist suggesting that the styles of the sopranos tell us something about the styles of their respective peoples! But the voices of Kirkby and Rial are to be relished for their very different qualities.