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This German countertenor wants more than easy compliments. 'I sing to communicate.'

If you are looking for the very model of the modern countertenor, the towering, rangy, 34, from Germany, is not, most certainly not, your man. Decca, the major label that has signed him to an exclusive contract (having snatched him from the boutique of Hyperion), comes right out and says so in the full-page advertisement in the program for Mr. Scholl's recent recital at Weill Recital Hall, the glittery little room upstairs at Carnegie Hall.

"Scholl's voice," runs the copy, taken from a review in FanFare, that bible for the diehard classical-record collector, "is pure and beautiful in sound, his taste exquisite, his pitch and diction immaculate. It is inadequate to compare Andreas Scholl to many other countertenors now working, even the finest of them. Instead, one is put in mind of legendary past masters."

Yes and most emphatically no. When classical singers of any other vocal type are likened to the giants of some lost golden age, the accolade is unambiguous. Callas, Caruso, Melchior, Flagstad: who will see their like again? But over the last quarter century, countertenors as a species have overtaken their predecessors handily. The "legendary past masters" -- midcentury cult figures like the Englishman Alfred Deller and the American Russell Oberlin -- charmed their small circles of admirers with fine-spun, gossamer instruments, for which a single lute in a little chamber was the most suitable accompaniment. The new breed of countertenors, the Americans David Daniels and Bejun Mehta leading the pack, fill full-scale concert halls and opera houses with their voices, their personalities, and their ecstatic fan clubs.

Whether Mr. Scholl's voice has the carrying power for large venues, music lovers in New York will have an opportunity to determine next Wednesday, when the artist returns to Carnegie Hall for an appearance with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Isaac Stern Auditorium, as the main space is now called. Most of his repertoire that night is drawn from his latest CD, representing quite a departure from his standard Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck, Pergolesi and the usual Elizabethans. Entitled "Poor Wayfaring Stranger," the album features 17 songs Americans and Britons of a certain age or antiquarian bent are sure to know: "Barbara Allen," "Annie Laurie," "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," "My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose" and so on.

In May, just before Mr. Scholl went into the recording studio, he told me about the project. This interested me for a reason he could not have suspected. In a brief, happily undocumented troubadour phase many years ago, I growled my way through a lot of these songs myself, in cafes and cellar theaters in Europe. It surprised me that an artist of Mr. Scholl's skills and sophistication would gravitate to material within the grasp of a mere amateur. Still, those songs are beautiful, and over breakfast at an eatery kitty-corner from Carnegie Hall, we compared versions (with folk songs, there are always many), and Mr. Scholl's affectionate, sincere pianissimo renditions revealed a side of his art I had not suspected.

The fact is that his past recordings - predominantly of sacred material, but also a silly party album from Hyperion with Dominique Visse and Pascal Bertin, originally marketed as "The Three Countertenors" (lawyers for guess who sprang into action) - had always struck me as rather a disappointment. No doubt about it: His voice, as recorded, must be numbered among the most mellifluous instruments ever to have caressed the human ear. But his manner had always struck me as bland to the point of featurelessness.

So it is surprising to hear him say, as he did when we met again just before the Weill Hall recital, that he chooses music because of the words. "I sing to communicate," he explained. "And what I have to communicate, first of all, is the text."

"Don't quote me," he said, "but when I was studying, and I would listen to...." Well, the name of the singer is safe with me. The artist in question, the cynosure of the early-music movement, emitted boy-soprano tones that, regardless of context, never slipped from the blithe, prelapsarian cheer best suited to wassail and madrigal evenings at boarding school. In the tragic cantatas and oratorios of Bach, the cognitive dissonance was staggering, though few seemed to mind. Those who called such singing "instrumental" (as many did) meant it as a compliment.

It would not be a compliment to Mr. Scholl. "Before I sing a text, I have to speak it," he insisted, demonstrating his notion of proper baroque rhetoric with a few metaphorically dense, emotionally jumpy verses from Bach's "St. John Passion." It was passionate, vivid, committed. Is Mr. Scholl a believer? "Yes," he said, "but sort of a heretic." A heretic? What followed was a critique of the editorial policies of the Council of Nicaea, which standardized the texts of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in 325 A.D. Mr. Scholl prefers the recently rediscovered Gospel of St. Thomas, who reports gnomic sayings of Jesus that, to Mr. Scholl's mind, have a provocative Buddhist slant.

Mr. Scholl does not go out of his way to read his reviews, but when he does see them, he prefers not to be told how beautiful his voice is. "What they always mean by that is that it's only beautiful," he explains. And yes, that can be a problem. All the same, if Decca had not already squandered the label "The Beautiful Voice" on an album of Renee Fleming's, Mr. Scholl would be the born candidate for the niche.

The instrumental arrangements of "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" overemphasize this virtue, pouring honey on interpretations that are already too sweet. True, in one or two numbers, Mr. Scholl injects a little gristle by splitting dialogue passages between his high singing voice and a gravelly baritone, but the effect misfires: Like a filament that only glows at white heat, his lower register is dull and gray. Nor did his recent recital (a suite of generally mournful, occasionally mildly erotic songs of mostly Elizabethan provenance, accompanied by the lutanist Karl-Ernst Schroder, discreet to a fault) reveal any of the liveliness that comes across in conversation. What registers most of all is an appealing gentleness and generosity, without a hint of the dramatic.

Nevertheless, in an age that has seen exclusive contracts of classical-recording artists go up in collective smoke, Decca continues to bank on Mr. Scholl. Beauty at Mr. Scholl's level is among the most precious of commodities. And there's the excitement he has generated as a singing actor. Mr. Scholl's operatic debut, at Glyndebourne Festival, in 1998, as Bertarido in Handel's "Rodelinda," was widely regarded as a triumph.

Offered Britten's Oberon, however, a part much coveted by his modern countertenor brethren, Mr. Scholl had to turn it down, realizing that the 20th-century idiom would take him more time than he had to absorb it. He hopes to catch up, and it will be a fine thing when he does. Meanwhile, next year, in Copenhagen, he assays the title role in Handel's "Julius Caesar," only his second operatic assignment. And a future recording project, from Decca, has him teamed up with the incandescent Cecilia Bartoli, who can strike sparks from a stone. Opera could be just the ticket to make Mr. Scholl catch fire - and to make a modern of him.

Matthew Gurewitsch, The Wall Street Journal (20 November 2001, p.A16 - Copyright Dow Jones & Company, 2001)

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