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S & H Recital Review

Folk Songs: Andreas Scholl, Karl-Ernst Schroeder, Markus Markl, Wigmore Hall, Tuesday December 18th. (M.E.)



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 ever attended.

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, for 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 think.

How to describe the voice? It is more than just a beautiful countertenor, for there are many of those, and they are not Scholl. It is an instrument of sensuous beauty, supported with a rich resonance and fluently produced throughout its range; the tone is exceptionally evenly emitted, his intonation unfailingly accurate and his timing redolent of 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 I 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 to 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; his 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 the 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 in the touching "I long for the wedding" and the enigmatic "Gallula Tom." Scholl prefaced the second group with some remarks about why he uses his baritone register for parts of "The wraggle taggle gypsies,o!" (" 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 a 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 my 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 pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, which showed his dazzling virtuosity and lively wit, both qualities which he had only a few opportunities to 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 any 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 last 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 hall as he sang the lines "And like winds in Summer sighing, her voice is low 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 I 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.

Melanie Eskenazi

See also Melanie Eskenaziís review of Scholl at the Dorchester Hotel.

See also CD review Wayfaring Stranger

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