Robert Tear (1939-2011)

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Acclaimed Welsh tenor dies aged 72

Few singers could match Robert Tear for sheer versatility. The tenor, who has died at the age of 72, could move quite easily from Baroque to late 20th-century repertoire, and comfortably embrace most of what lay between.

Above all, though, Tear will probably be best remembered for his brilliance in roles by Benjamin Britten, helped to an extent by his similarity of timbre to Peter Pears, for whom those parts were written. His many successes here included the title role in Peter Grimes, Aschenbach in Death in Venice and Captain Vere in Billy Budd, all of which he played in major opera houses across the world.

But there was so much more to Tear than Britten. His vocal agility and clarity made him a first-rate evangelist in the Bach Passions, for instance, while his long discography included a hugely enjoyable CD of Handel, Arne and Boyce with the Academy of St Martins in the Fields and, as a soloist, a King’s College, Cambridge recording of Handel’s Messiah. His own love of Victorian ballads was reflected on his excellent The Dicky Bird and The Owl recital disc with Benjamin Luxon and André Previn.

Tear’s career, which began as a choral scholar at King’s, was a long one. His association with the Royal Opera House alone lasted for nearly 40 years, beginning in 1970 and ending with a performance of Altoum in Puccini’s Turandot in 2009. Nor did it just embrace singing – he also took the occasional conducting engagement and, towards the end of his life, was increasingly in demand as a narrator and speaker.

He certainly had a gift with words and was always a rewarding interviewee. Two years ago, he talked memorably toBBC Music Magazine about singing in Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony on our cover CD. ‘We can see the clarity of Mendelssohn’s genius again now,’ he reflected. ‘It’s like a spring from a well – bubbling, silvery and clean.’

The same description might equally apply to Tear’s own tenor voice.

Jeremy Pound