wed 01/10/2014

Andreas Scholl, Wigmore Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Andreas Scholl, Wigmore Hall

Countertenor trades in baroque for an evening of lieder

Lieder of the pack: Andreas Scholl experiments with classical and romantic art-song with some success

It’s something of a fashion at the moment for countertenors to break out of the baroque, to have a bit of a fling with classical and even romantic repertoire. David Daniels has experimented with Berlioz, Philippe Jaroussky has flirted as only a Frenchman can with the mélodies of Massenet and Hahn, and now Andreas Scholl is embracing his native lieder. A concert last night at the Wigmore Hall took his latest disc on the road, stripping the singer of the safety of the recording studio and letting his audience judge his latest, and in some ways most ambitious, programme for themselves.

The conventional conclusion on such innovation goes something along the lines of Cold Comfort Farm’s “Tes flying in the face of nature!” Countertenors are to mezzos and baritones as harpsichords are to pianos; why would you opt for a one-tone, nuance-free sound with limited range when you could have a glorious expanse of Steinway (complete with sustaining pedal) instead? It’s a reasonable argument up to a point, but like most issues of tradition isn’t always sustained by the most reasonable people. While unshakeable absolutes and ideological battle-lines might be more sexy, the fact is that it all rather depends on the particular singer and the repertoire in question.

Scholl invested the endless arabesque of its melody with practised grace and legato

For all his signature purity at the top of his range, Scholl has developed a surprising amount of warmth (if not heft) through the lower registers, and certainly more than enough colour for the delicate miniatures by Schubert, Mozart, Haydn and Brahms that he has chosen. It’s not as if he’s attempting the Rückert-Lieder or even Winterreise.

The biggest work of the evening was Schubert’s Der Jüngling auf dem Hügel – a compressed epic if ever there was one. Mercurial in mood, the song led Scholl (and a less willing Tamar Halperin, pictured below, at the piano) from lyric pastoral contemplation to abject despair. Scholl’s narrative here was beautifully judged, shading each episode with care and tonal specificity. Though doubtless better in the intimacy of the recording studio, Halperin’s accompaniments and solo numbers were fragile to the point of timidity. It worked surprisingly well for Mozart’s flighty Rondo in F and Schubert’s throwaway Waltz in B minor, but Brahms’ Intermezzo in A needed more than she was willing to give.

While in London Haydn apparently made the acquaintance of widowed poetess and salonista Anne Hunter. She is now best remembered for the composer’s settings of her poems, which sadly not even Scholl’s musicality can make bearable. It’s all a bit Victorian parlour, and this preciousness, this stiffness, is if anything compounded by a countertenor voice.

Brahms’s Deutsche Volkslieder could easily go the same way, but are saved by the elegant interplay of folk melody and art-song accompaniment. Opening up and discovering increasing clarity and resonance as the evening progressed, Scholl found a freedom here that his more mannered Mozart songs lacked (although the dialogue of Das Veilchen all but demands such treatment). Dialogue found itself dramatised even more keenly in Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen where Scholl’s rather beautiful baritone got an airing as the voice of Death to his countertenor Maiden. This register-shifting is a familiar party-piece in the singer’s repertoire, but no less effective for that.

The apparent simplicity of Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh is a mire that has engulfed many a singer, but Scholl invested the endless arabesque of its melody with practised grace and legato. Listening to this still, almost vibrato-less, serenade – the emotional and technical climax of the evening – it was impossible to ignore the realisation that this expert display was the closest the recital came to Scholl’s home turf and the long lines of Handel or Buxtehude arias. Countertenors can certainly do lieder; if they sing like Scholl they can do them well. But nine evenings out of 10 I’d still much rather hear them singing Bach.

Comments

It's probably worth

It's probably worth remembering that until 70 years ago there weren't any countertenors to speak of, and when one did appear (ahem, my grandfather Alfred Deller, who would have been 100 this year) there was similar carping: mezzos complaining he was nicking their repertoire, orchestral musicians smirking at, well, you can guess what. That's another point: might people be squeamish about a man singing repertoire that's often more obviously written for a woman to sing? Although personally I'm all for a bit of musical gender-bending... (I wrote about Deller's centenary elsewhere; I hope you don't mind me posting this link to it: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/may/31/alfred-deller-centenary-cele...)

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