Andreas Scholl’s voice is small, but perfectly formed and his purity of tone is exquisite. A full house at the Wigmore Hall sat on the edge of their seats, listening with rapt attention. Much has been written about his great artistry and the sheer beauty of his vocal sound and I suspect no inveterate Scholl fans in the audience will have been disappointed by his performance.
Having recently reviewed Laurence Zazzo, Andrew Watts and watched David Daniels on DVD, I went to the Wigmore intrigued as to why Andreas Scholl has been singled out and accorded ‘superstar’ status. What is it about him as a performer which sells out recital halls? Why was he and not a British countertenor invited to appear in the 2005 Last Night of the Proms, singing British repertoire?
To quote Scholl, 'There are no style police who will fine you if you sing Schubert songs as a countertenor but, for me personally, I made the decision that first of all I'm a countertenor, and I studied in a school that specialised in medieval to late baroque music so I know best how to perform that kind of music.' He is not known internationally as an opera singer, as are the other three ‘Senesino’ countertenors and I don’t foresee today’s composers writing operatic roles for him as they do for other countertenors like Andrew Watts. Scholl has taken roles in three Handel productions, but has allegedly turned down an invitation to sing what I like to call the ‘Bowman’ role in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He has diverged from his chosen position at the heart of ‘early music’ with his 2001 album of folk songs, Wayfaring Stranger, which was viewed with some scepticism by fellow musicians.
So how does an international performer decide what to programme for a Wigmore Hall recital? Scholl and his accompanist, Tamar Halperin took us on a round trip from the UK to Germany and back again. The first half, accompanied on the harpsichord, was bridged by settings of English poems by Haydn with piano accompaniment, via Brahms folk songs into a finale of British folk songs. At each stage of this stately progress Scholl generously allowed his accompanist a chance to shine in her own right. After the opening Purcell songs we were treated to a ‘Round’ from 1695, which comprised variations on a melody which is today familiar as the theme of Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Ms Halperin is a very sensitive accompanist, taking great care to follow Scholl’s dynamics as well as his rubato. Her performance of the ‘Round O ZT684’ was, like Scholl’s singing, a thing of beauty in miniature. Between Dowland and Robert Johnson she played two movements from Handel ‘Suite No 2 in F HWV427’ with great poise.
After the interval we returned to the auditorium to discover the harpsichord had been replaced by one of the Wigmore Steinways. I was fearful that Scholl would not be able to compete with a concert grand, especially in German Romantic repertoire. However Ms Halperin proved to be as sensitive a pianist as she is a harpsichord player and produced a number of tasteful pianissimos. My only criticism would be that in the Haydn ‘Sonata in A HXVI:12’ her playing was a little too romantic for my taste.
It may be because once again my critic’s seat was in row W under the overhang of the balcony, but as in the case of Lawrence Zazzo’s recital, I sometimes found it difficult to hear every word at the back. Scholl has a very contained head voice, except for the moments when he unexpectedly employs his baritone chest voice. I don’t want to criticize his diction as I know from his recordings and from lip-reading that he enunciates very clearly. Only his ‘e’ vowel sound betrayed him as German. What really brought the issue of lack of projection home to me was the fact that it was difficult to catch Scholl’s soft speaking voice without straining. I felt he was communicating well with the first few rows in the stalls rather than projecting either his singing or speaking voice to the back of the auditorium. Despite his lack of audibility, he managed to convey a great warmth of personality with his gestures and facial expressions.
He chose to open the concert with two theatrical songs by Purcell: ‘Music for a while’ and ‘Sweeter than roses.’ In the second song particularly, he reminded me of James Bowman both vocally and stylistically. He essentially approaches the music of Purcell with a very pure, sustained sound, almost vibrato-less until the end of a long note where his natural vibrato tends to kick in. After the brief interlude of the Purcell ‘Round’, he sang three songs by John Dowland, a precursor of Purcell who is known today for writing many songs generally accompanied by the lute. Scholl’s voice would be ideally suited to singing with lute accompaniment in the intimacy of somebody’s dining room. His style is gentle and smooth, so that I’m afraid to say that by the third song, I started to feel soporific. Maybe Decca should consider marketing Scholl as the perfect singer with whom to de-stress - Music for bathtime listening maybe?
After a spot of Handel on the harpsichord, Scholl sang ‘Have you seen the bright lily grow?’ in a setting by Robert Johnson (1583-1633,) another lutenist. (By then I was longing for the Elizabeth Maconchy version of this lovely poem.) Tony Burton writes, ‘The song’s slow-moving harmonies give it an almost trance-like quality.’ Oh dear, I thought to myself, I’ve already found the Dowland soporific…
‘I care not for these ladies’ by Thomas Campion (1567-1620) was more engaging, partly because Campion was so much more of a complete man rather than a mere lutenist; he studied law, practised medicine and wrote poetry in both Latin and English as well as treatises on harmony. Scholl raised laughter from the audience by acting the roles of both the robust lover and his Arcadian wanton country maid, who initially plays hard to get.
Scholl ended the first half of the concert with two more songs by Purcell. The first – ‘O Solitude, my sweetest choice’- he read from the music. According to his introduction, this is because the English text doesn’t quite make sense to him and so is difficult to learn by heart. The poem is taken from the English version of La Solitude de St Amant by Katherine Philips. The original is by Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant, a poet who was reputed to be part of Cyrano de Bergerac’s Rationalist circle. This setting comprises less than three stanzas of what was originally a twenty-stanza poem, eliding much of the meaning. The second Purcell song was ‘Man is for the woman made.’ Firstly the song opened with Scholl singing about an octave lower than his ‘Senesino’ tessitura, which sounded odd. Secondly we were warned that this was a drinking song which would require audience participation. Apparently we were competing with a particularly lusty rendition at a past concert in Sydney. It was all good, clean fun and the Wigmore audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves.
At the end of the interval, a fellow critic resumed her seat muttering, ‘Let’s hope the Brahms isn’t going to involve audience participation; that would be a bridge too far for me!’ Scholl resumed with three English Canzonettas by Haydn which frankly left me cold. I felt in a couple of places he was slightly under pitch and I started to notice firstly a rather annoying habit he has of taking a breath before every final note of a verse and secondly that he tends not to sustain the line to the very end of each phrase, but sometimes stops the flow of air quite abruptly. I know I am being hyper-critical, but neither of these to me is compatible with the reviews I’ve read of his extraordinary breath control and of his great musicianship. In his defence, I did wonder if he was suffering from an incipient cold as he did clear his throat and then even went off stage in mid-sequence, presumably to get a drink of water.
Again with the sheet music in front of him, he launched into ‘Four Folksongs’ by Brahms, published in 1894. He did warn us this was the first time he had sung Brahms in recital. It was refreshing to hear him sing in his native language and I felt he had all the necessary musicianship to be a fine interpreter of Brahms. However once again he suffered from the inability to project his very beautiful yet contained voice. As the drama and emotion in each song ebbed and flowed, he was carrying the audience with him as he started to build up dramatic tension, but all too quickly it plateaued and faded because this is not a voice which you can use to express an outpouring of passion. Quiet subtlety, negotiating intervals with apparent ease, phrasing off one of those liquid high notes you’ll get in a Scholl recital; power and thrilling passion you will not.
The recital ended with three arrangements of English folk songs. I’m afraid I’m with the 2001 critics of Wayfaring Stranger. It is the simplicity and purity of British folk songs which move me. Despite his ability to deliver Purcell arias with a constrained purity, in his rendition of folk songs he used too much rubato for my taste and seemed to want to put his own stamp on those simple, modal melodies, causing them to sound mannered and distinctly un-British.
Andreas Scholl is a delightful and engaging performer with a voice of unique beauty. I think he is a consummate recording artist and I applaud his attempts to take risks and step outside his comfort zone, whether or not such ventures are entirely successful. He has an artistic credibility which record company creations such as Katherine Jenkins and Russell Watson can only dream of. His Brahms may well sound wonderful on CD in future. To paraphrase a paint advertising campaign, Andreas Scholl does what it says on the tin; if you buy a ticket for one of his recitals, he will deliver a quality performance within the limitations of that pure, small voice. But I’m afraid I was expecting more from a superstar.