So, finally, the great Swiss tenor, Hugues Cuénod has died at the remarkable age of 108. He was still teaching and singing after his 100th birthday and he leaves us now when people were beginning to believe that he was actually immortal.
He will be immortal of course. Luckily he made recordings going right back to the 1920s and 30s which still hold their place, not just in musical history but also in the annals of pure beauty. He had a light tenor voice, typically Gallic in many ways, and an apparently natural technique and perfect diction which allowed him to become one of the greatest singers of songs. Stravinsky and Poulenc wrote parts specially for him recognising his unique timbre. He carried on performing through his eighties, making his New York Metropolitan Opera debut at the age of 85 at the emperor in Puccini’s Turandot, and he continued to give masterclasses until he was over one hundred years old. Once asked why he thought his voice had lasted so well, he answered that he couldn’t really lose his voice because he never had one in the first place.
I saw him in one of his most famous roles, the unctuously creepy Don Basilio in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (still available on a remarkably recording on CD) at Glyndebourne and his instinctive comedy expressed with his long thin body matched to that light clear voice will always make him THE Don Basilio for me.
If I have to select some music to remember him by though it would be in his pioneering recordings of Monteverdi madrigals that he made with the great conductor Nadia Boulanger in 1937. For all the advances in musicology since then, those performances, complete with an unashamedly historically inaccurate piano, catches the essence of Monteverdi. Here is Hugues Cuénod with a second tenor, Paul Darenne in the madrigal “Zefiro torna e’l bel tempo rimena” – a romantic invocation of the West Wind, asking it to bring love and pleasure with its balmy breezes. If you think you don’t want to hear any Monteverdi or that you don’t want to hear such an old recording, think again. This is a truly great record:
So farewell Monsieur Cuénod. An amazing man with an amazing career and who defied the ravages of age with wit, modesty and artistry. Even at the age of 107, he would defy the more conservative elements of Swiss society by registering his civil partnership with his long term partner, Alfred Augustin.
So let us remember that he who shouts loudest…yep….doesn’t last longest.