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The Bewitching Andreas Scholl Breaks the Countertenor Curse

copyright © New York Observer, 2001


Sissy and Max Strauss, who live just off Central Park West, are used to hearing great singers burst into impromptu song at one of their frequent gatherings for luminaries in the opera world. But they had never heard anything quite like the voice that suddenly launched into the "Habanera" from Carmen the other night. "It was one of the most fantastic Carmens I've ever heard," Mrs. Strauss said later. "I thought, 'Why have I never heard this important mezzo before?' When I turned around and saw that it was a tall, handsome young man sitting in the corner, I nearly died. It turned out to be Andreas Scholl, who somebody had brought along as a guest."
Mr. Scholl would look awfully silly if he put on a sultry Spanish girl's skirt and started sashaying around the stage with castanets. He stands well over six feet, and has a strapping build and clean-cut features that have prompted more than one writer to liken him to Clark Kent. His speaking voice is a pleasant baritone. And yet when he sings, an unexpected thing happens. Out of the mouth of this mother's dream of the perfect catch for her daughter comes a sound that is neither masculine nor feminine, but something bewitchingly beyond both.
One of the more interesting cultural developments in recent years has been the rise of the countertenor. What, 50 years ago, used to be the shadowy province of Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, who reinvented the art of falsetto without undergoing the mutilation that had made castrati the superstars of the Baroque, is no longer a no man's land. David Daniels, Dominique Visse, Bejun Mehta, Daniel Taylor, Brian Asawa, Derek Lee Ragin and others have made countertenors not just obligatory in the casting of Handel's endlessly rediscovered operas, but concert headliners in their own right. In my view, the German-born Mr. Scholl is the prize of the lot.
The curse of countertenors, many of whom started out to be baritones or tenors, is to sound strenuously "pushed up." I have a friend who calls them "voices in drag," and indeed some of today's most proficient members of the breed come dangerously close to sounding like either impersonators of celebrated female voices (why do I always hear Joan Sutherland behind David Daniels' pyrotechnics?) or singing mannequins - all clothes and no body. But there's nothing artificial or disconnected about the warm, alto timbre of Mr. Scholl's voice, which has a woodiness that brings it closer to the clarinet than to the flute. Like many of the past century's most distinctive voices - one thinks of Jussi Björling or Kathleen Ferrier - it seems to be on a long, solitary journey, haunted by the vistas ahead, even when singing regretfully of the past. It's a voice that emanates so naturally from the singer that it doesn't so much carry the melody as embody it.
In a remarkably precocious career that began about 10 years ago, Mr. Scholl has appeared on a number of CD's in collaboration with most of the leading early-music conductors in Europe. Two of the albums - an effervescent Messiah, with Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie, and an ethereal Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, with the soprano Barbara Bonney and Les Talens Lyriques, conducted by Christophe Rousset - have taken pride of place on my shelves. (His latest collaboration, Wayfaring Stranger - a rather too lushly produced but beautifully sung collection of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk songs, with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra - can be heard live in concert at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 5.)
It is in companionship with the lute, an instrument that enjoyed a huge vogue in England and Europe at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, that Mr. Scholl really shines. In a recent appearance at Weill Recital Hall that was sold-out well in advance, he delivered a program of songs drawn mostly from two albums, English Folksongs and Lute Songs and A Musicall Banquet, that showed him to be not just the owner of a rare, indelible voice, but a performer of enormous charm.
Devoting a program entirely to languorous songs composed 400 years ago around two sentiments - love found and lost, and love lost and found - was asking a lot, even of devotees of the High Renaissance. ("How much lulling can I stand?" my companion asked.) Mr. Scholl and his lutenist, Karl-Ernst Schréder, made it enthralling. Although Weill Hall is the perfect size for vocal dynamics that rarely rise above the level of a plaintive sigh and a string instrument designed for an audience of one, it is a dry room, without much resonance. Mr. Scholl had to work hard to float the long lines of the English, Spanish and Italian songs such that they seemed to hover in the air, like a breeze.
An adept linguist - his English was virtually without accent - he colored each song with robust exquisiteness, finding just the right playful earnestness in Thomas Campion's "My Sweetest Lesbia, Let Us Live and Love" and noble mournfulness in John Dowland's "I Saw My Lady Weep." He was at his most affecting in songs by Giulio Caccini, an Italian composer who delicately nudged the quiet simplicities of the High Renaissance into the more flashy Baroque. In "Dovrí Dunque Morire" ("Must I Then Die?"), the plaintive last gasp of a courtier who has all but given up hope of finding his lover, Mr. Scholl made a series of heart-stopping echoes out of the repeated closing line, "Moro mia vita" ("I am dying, my life"), before rousing himself in the ornate final repetition with a fiery flourish that disappeared like a fading ember. For encores, he abandoned the esoteric for the banal. With another singer, the choice of ending with "Annie Laurie" and "O Waly Waly" might have been an invitation for everyone to join in. But the audience sat as if transfixed, not wanting to disturb the spell cast by two chestnuts whose familiarity had been miraculously banished, to be replaced by something altogether new.

Charles Michener, The New York Observer (10 December 01, p31)