Purcell’s “Music for a while” (part of the incidental music for Lee and Dryden’s Oedipus) was the ideal opener, in terms of its text, and in setting an appropriate mood. It highlighted Scholl’s vocal control, precision, clarity of English diction, effective shaping of the words and general expressivity. With a larger orchestra he has in the past sometimes sounded a little underpowered in this venue, but on this occasion every note carried clearly. For most of the pieces, he sang without a book and communicated directly with the audience.
“Sweeter than roses” (from Pausanias, the betrayer of his country) was a good example of Scholl’s conveying of meaning, with the word “trembling” being visibly acted out. The “Evening Hymn” contrasted with the two more secular previous songs, with golden high melismas showing Scholl’s smooth legato. The first instrumental offering was Halperin’s rendition of Round O in D minor (from Aphra Behn’s Abdelazer), perhaps overly familiar from Britten’s YoungPerson’s Guide to the Orchestra, played at rather a careful tempo. Another instrumental piece followed, an arrangement of “Since from my dear Astrea’s sight” (Dioclesain) for viola da gamba and basso continuo (harpsichord and theorbo), an exercise in virtuoso melancholy. Scholl returned for a warm and caressing version of “Fairest Isle” (King Arthur), with the ritornello taken by theorbo.
“When I am in laid in earth” is generally known as “Dido’s lament” (Dido and Aeneas), but, as observed in the program notes, the text is not in itself committed to any gendered position, and Scholl’s rendition was precise and moving. A harpsichord suite followed and then “O Solitude”, with Scholl holding the audience spellbound by the beauty of his delivery. The final work before the interval was a change of pace, with Scholl leading a singalong for the audience in “Man is for the woman made” (The Mock Marriage) in his light baritone, which rather suggests he should not give up his day job as a countertenor.
The Handel part of the concert began with a Sonata in G minor (Op 1 No 6, HWV 364) played here on viola da gamba with lively virtuosity. This was followed by the cantata “Vedendo amor (HWV 175), written by the young Handel in Rome. The first aria sounded somewhat bland, and could have been a little more varied in tone and colour. The second however was gorgeously sung with warm feeling, and the following recitative with cello pizzicato yielded beautiful vocal sounds. One of Handel’s less familiar works followed, selections from his “Tunes for Clay’s musical Clock” (aka Seven pieces in C major, HWV 598, 694, 603, 599), played on the theorbo. One does not frequently hear the theorbo on its own, and these small pieces were rendered with delicate virtuosity and very well-received by the audience. The first adagio-allegro pair of “Harpsichord suite No 2 in F major” (HWV 427) was performed with sparkling skill, before the final programmed item.
“Nel dolce tempo” (HWV 135) is one of the better known of Handel’s early Italian cantatas, and is known in both alto and soprano versions. Again Scholl displayed his mastery of the genre, with perfect diction, voice control, legato and gorgeous messa di voce, and also his ability to dramatise a work, in this instance acting out the responses of both shepherd and shepherdess. After this, the artists looked like they were trying to escape without an encore, but the crowd thought otherwise. “Ombra mai fu” (Serse HWV 40) is something of a signature piece for Scholl in Australia, and, with beautiful sustained notes, it is hard to imagine a more perfect rendition, or indeed a more perfect recital.