You just have to accept it; sometimes, the hype is true;
sometimes, you actually get to experience one of the true greats of
this or any other age - some of us even do so for free, and then we
get to re-live it all over again when we write about it afterwards,
the only challenge being to somehow convey the wonder of what was experienced.
On Tuesday night at the Wigmore Hall, a packed house heard with rapture
some of the most beautiful sounds ever to come from a human voice, lavished
upon music of heart-stopping candour and beauty and accompanied on the
lute and harpsichord with verve and virtuosity. Andreas Scholl's
evening of Folk Songs, many of them presented in a slightly different
guise on his latest CD, must rank as one of the finest recitals I have
I freely confess to being one of those for whom the phrase "Folk Songs"
conjures up images of shaggy-haired twits circa 1968, twanging
tunelessly on guitars and plugging one ear with a finger, and to having
scant knowledge of the real examples of the genre; in Webster's
definition, it is the ".expression of the life of the people in a
community," and, as such, I admire and am interested in such vernacular
history, but it has little resonance for me. This may perhaps be
accounted for by not having been brought up in this country, since,
example, I was only vaguely aware of "Annie Laurie" and had never heard
"She Moved Through the Fair" until I heard Scholl sing them. So, they
came to me as fresh as if they had just been written, and I cannot
imagine what it must be like to hear him sing them if you have lived
with them all your life - wonderful in a quite different way, I would
How to describe the voice? It is more than just a beautiful
countertenor, for there are many of those, and they are not Scholl.
is an instrument of sensuous beauty, supported with a rich resonance
fluently produced throughout its range; the tone is exceptionally evenly
emitted, his intonation unfailingly accurate and his timing redolent
the most intense musicality. It was once said of a great tenor of the
past that his voice had upon it a bloom like that of a ripe peach, and
the same remark might equally well be applied in the present case. If
had to single out the one quality which sets Scholl apart from every
other countertenor (in addition to his riveting stage presence and
touching sincerity) it would be his phrasing, which I would compare
that of Callas; it is not that great soprano's bravura singing of the
great bel canto arias, but what Gerald Moore finely called "the nuance
of her phrases, so felicitously shaped" which brings tears to my eyes,
and so it is with Scholl.
Few voices or singers can be as sophisticated as this one, yet he
managed to be completely self-effacing in his singing of these simple
treasures. "I am a poor wayfaring stranger" introduced the complete
seriousness with which he approaches this music as well as the
astonishing range of emotion he finds within a relatively limited text.
"The salley gardens" was phrased with melting beauty and tenderness;
phrasing in itself is an object lesson in subtlety and plasticity, and
his management of rests is exquisite. At the end of "Black is the
colour," the line "When she and I will be as one" seemed to hang in
air long after it had been sung.
The first group of songs were followed by a set of lute solos from the
"Straloch" manuscript of 1627; these fascinating little pieces were
played by Schroeder as if they had been written for him, especially
the touching "I long for the wedding" and the enigmatic "Gallula Tom."
Scholl prefaced the second group with some remarks about why he uses
baritone register for parts of "The wraggle taggle gypsies,o!" ("..to
tell the story..) and then proceeded to give us a demonstration; from
the reaction of some of the audience, this was a very weird experience
for those who had not yet had it, and it is indeed astonishing to hear
singer switch from the middle range of the counter-tenor voice to that
of the baritone with hardly a breath in between.
The most moving song in this group was "The wife of Usher's Well," an
eerie yet heartbreaking tale of the loss and brief "revenance" of three
children; if there was a dry eye in the house, it certainly wasn't in
row. "Oh send me back my three little babes, /Tonight or in the mornin'
soon" was sung with mesmerising anguish, and "It was so near the
Christmas time..Her three little babes came a runnin' up / All into
their mother's arms," with such aching beauty and candour that you'd
have to be made of stone not to shed a tear; I could not help noticing
that neither William Lyne nor John Eliot Gardiner were so constituted.
The harpsichordist Marcus Märkl gave a brief rendition of three
from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, which showed his dazzling virtuosity
and lively wit, both qualities which he had only a few opportunities
reveal in his accompaniments, which were, at times, a little on the
over-careful side. In Scholl's final group, we were privileged to hear
performances of "My love is like a red, red rose" and "She moved through
the fair" which it would be impossible to imagine being bettered by
other singer, always supposing he or she had the courage and originality
to present such a programme in the first place. In the former, the
phrases "And I will come again, my love, Tho 'twere ten thousand mile"
were sung and phrased with unaffected sincerity, and the latter was
simply perfection; "Like the swan in the evening / Moves over the lake"
seemed to make time stand still, for neither the first time nor the
in this recital.
Scholl paid graceful tribute to Alfred Deller as the singer who had
awoken him to the beauties of this music, and said that his favourite
songs were the final scheduled one, "Henry Martin," and the first
encore, "Annie Laurie." I know I've said this before, but if anyone
wants an example of how completely enrapturing the human voice can be,
they have only to listen to Scholl singing this; the silence in the
as he sang the lines "And like winds in Summer sighing, her voice is
and sweet," his intonation so subtly varied and of such perfect
inwardness, was the most near-tangible I have ever experienced. Finally,
"O Waly Waly" closed the evening in a performance of deeply moving
intensity; "But when it grows old, it waxes cold, and fades away like
morning dew" lingered in our ears long after it had been sung.
One of the most beautiful voices of our time (or any other, so far as
know) allied to a rare sensibility and an engaging presence, accompanied
with collaborative sympathy and heard by a knowledgeable and deeply
appreciative audience; could anything closer to heaven possibly be
imagined? An evening which made you glad to be alive.
See also Melanie Eskenaziís review
of Scholl at the Dorchester Hotel.
See also CD review Wayfaring