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Monday, January 22, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ragin Shows Why Countertenor Popularity Is In Midst Of Revival

Seattle Times Music Critic

Music review Derek Lee Ragin, countertenor, with Peter Croton, lute; Seattle Art Museum auditorium, yesterday.

As recently as a dozen years ago, there were only a handful of countertenors on the counter, so to speak. The countertenor voice, which is sometimes described as a male alto achieved through cultivation of the falsetto register, was seldom heard outside a relatively rarefied circle.

All that has changed dramatically, as the early-music revival has jump-started an interest in early opera and other fields that present this vocal category. Where once only the name of Alfred Deller might have been known, now there are good recordings by many (including a successful Three Tenors spoof, "The Three Countertenors").

The American-born Derek Lee Ragin is one of the best, and best-known, of today's thriving countertenors, and he made his Seattle debut yesterday under auspices of the Early Music Guild with lutenist and composer Peter Croton. The occasion marked that duo's first American appearance together, though they've been performing together for five or six years in Europe.

Though the Seattle Art Museum auditorium was too small to accommodate as many listeners as wished to attend, it was clear that a larger hall would have overwhelmed the modest voice of the gut-strung lute - much less the modest voice of Ragin himself.

It is hard to imagine him filling the cavernous Metropolitan Opera House (as he has done since his debut in Handel's "Giulio Cesare" in 1988); as heard here, this is a voice of beautiful color but rather delicate size and scope. It certainly is a voice heard widely in the opera and concert world, however, and recorded in an extensive discography. Ragin was heard on the soundtrack of the movie "Farinelli," and has made no less than two recordings that were nominated for 1995 Grammy Awards.

Yesterday's program was devoted mainly to 17th century music of Italian and English composers: Caccini, Kapsberger, Piccinini, Frescobaldi, Dowland and Purcell among them. Croton's music also was heard at the end of the program, which was capped by something decidedly different: an eerily moving account of the spiritual, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."

Ragin's voice is most effective in the range from about middle C up to a tenth or eleventh above, and most of his program concentrated there, displaying a technique of brilliant facility in even the most intricate runs and passagework. Alacrity, diction and phrasing all contributed to an unusually expressive approach which bespoke high-level artistry.

Croton's lute was not always equally successful; he had difficulties keeping it in tune, judging dynamics and avoiding the buzzing sound of strings incompletely stopped. He is a careful and sensitive accompanist, however, and in toccatas of Piccinini rose to an admirable technical level.

Kudos to the Early Music Guild for landing this important American debut for its recital series, which will conclude March 31 with a program by harpist Andrew Lawrence-King.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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