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Andreas Scholl is a strapping six foot three inches with a firm handshake. Flank forward material. You would never guess just by looking at him that, when he sings, his voice sounds so close to that of a mezzo-soprano. Andreas Scholl is, arguably, the crème de la crème, with a seriousness of purpose and beauty of tone that have made him among the most sought after singers of his generation. (He was born in Germany in 1967.) Since the heyday of James Bowman in the 1970’s and 1980s, no counter-tenor has commanded such a high profile. Scholl’s 1998 disc on Decca, Heroes, won him much acclaim ("this is some of the finest heroic singing I can remember hearing", wrote one critic) as did his Handel arias recital on Harmonia Mundi, and in December last year the Belgium Music Press awarded him the Young Musician of the Year Prize.
JEREMY NICHOLAS: What was it like when you realised for the first time that you sang best like a woman?ANDREAS SCHOLL: Well, I sang in a boys’ choir as a treble from the age of seven, so as a child I already sang like a woman! So for me it was not a big change, since I sang through the period when my voice was breaking. Perhaps there were some uncomfortable moments early on when I sang in the school choir – this was a different context with friends, colleagues, girls I was in love with in the audience and, yes, when I first stood up as a seventeen-year-old and sang solos in the alto or mezzo-soprano range, I imagine they may have thought it strange. But for me it was never a problem accepting that I was a counter-tenor – I never went into therapy to try and get over it!
And you sing tenor when you’re not …
...baritone when you are not singing falsetto? Sorry, I mean your head voice. Falsetto is a different thing?
That’s the question. ‘Falsetto’ obviously comes from the word ‘false’ which is why I don’t like it, but it probably expresses the same thing. I’ve had a video camera stuck down my throat and I’ve seen the way my vocal chords vibrate when I’m singing alto. With baritone, the vocal chords vibrate on the whole length while, when I sing counter-tenor, the whole larynx moves inwards and the vocal chords vibrate at another speed. This was the part of my voice which was saved after the voice-break, so it was something that was extremely familiar, one that gave me far more expressive possibilities than my newly-gained baritone voice which was new, rough, uneducated. So I would switch instinctively to my head voice if I had to sing something.
How long an apprenticeship did you serve before the big breakthrough?As a student I was very well protected by my teachers (Richard Levitt and Rene Jacobs) at the Schola Cantorum (in Basel). The general rule is that you are not allowed to sing a concert outside the music academy without the permission of your teacher, a rule which is not that well respected nowadays. I talked to the director about this before I start teaching there in October – at the very place where I studied years ago! – and I said we have to bring this discipline back because it’s a dangerous time. Conductors hear of a student with a beautiful voice, they want a counter-tenor and just call up – ‘Come and sing the Matthew Passion’. I would never have dared do that – maybe I could have fought my way through it but in a terrible manner. I was never that ambitious and I was always scared to find myself in a situation where I was not in full control of what I was doing. I don’t believe in the ‘lifetime chance’, one moment when you have to make the right or the wrong decision. Decisions come every day and they will either lead into something or not.
But nevertheless, there must have been one moment for you. One day nobody’s heard of you, the next day you’re everywhere.The one moment was definitely the Messiah recording with William Christie. Well, I like the piece a lot, and I got along with Christie extremely well – I still do – and the recording was a big success and I was particularly mentioned all over – ‘a beautiful recording especially "He was despised" with Andreas Scholl’, that sort of thing, you know. So then obviously this was the next step – there was an interest. Then Rene Jacobs fell ill before a recital in Paris. Everyone, his friends, festival organisers, everybody who knew him, all had come to Paris to see Rene Jacobs. On Thursday he called me and said ‘I can’t sing. Can you sing on Sunday?’ So I caught a plane on Sunday morning and presented what was really my diploma concert. Rene Jacobs wrote a nice letter to read to the audience – ‘He is one of my students, he has a really beautiful voice, please stay and hear him’. Well it was a huge, huge success in this small hall – not many people there – so in one step I reached all the French Baroque music festivals.
Compare yourself with your peers. How would you describe your vocal qualities?Well, what I try to reach is depth in singing. One thing about countertenor singing is that it is still new to a wide audience. You can get away with beautiful singing for long time. We don’t need to reflect on what we are doing. We just sing the note with our beautiful voice and the audience will like it. Some countertenors are still stuck in that place, because it’s very tempting to cultivate beauty and just sing beautifully. But it’s not everything. When I open a score, it asks a question. And the question is not necessarily ‘please, Andreas, sing me beautifully’ but ‘read the words that you sing; reflect a little about what you are singing’. In the Baroque time, music was there to serve the words. That’s the priority. That’s the message. So then I think about my role and the text and how I can express the ideas I have about it. In the end, it may not be something about ‘beauty, beauty, beauty’. It may be something about ‘ugly’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’.
Asawa and Mera often perform Romantic repertoire or popular songs which, for my taste, are not suited to the alto voice. It’s an area I can’t see you becoming involved with.
No, but the background of each singer is different. I was musically raised, so to speak, at the Schola Cantorum, a place where the scholarly approach is strong, where we had lots of theory subjects and went in depth into the music. I see myself as a counter-tenor of the English school, which means that I sing basically Renaissance and Baroque music. This is what I learned, this is where I feel most at home. If you are a singer in the first place, then you sing everything you can get your fingers on, be it Rachmaninov, Ravel, whatever. For them it’s perfectly OK because it suits their background. That’s why I will not sing Schubert because it’s not my background - and just because someone else sings it is not a reason for me to do it. But this is always a question for each singer to answer for himself. What do I stand for? What are my ideas? What am I doing through singing? Some people ask me: ‘Don’t you feel limited by singing Renaissance and Baroque music?’ Well, this is most of musicology till this very day! Four centuries of successful operas! Just because they don’t know them doesn’t mean they weren’t successful in their day. There’s so much music to discover. [Lutenist] Tony Rooley told me, students sing three or four Dowland songs, then they say ‘OK, we’ve done Dowland, we’ve done English Renaissance, now let’s move on to the next!’ Well, we could sing Dowland and English lute songs from now until the end of our lives without repeating one song once. So we have to be a bit obsessive and stay with something to sing in depth.
What about switching to a baritone solo halfway through a recital? Would you ever do that?Oh, I did that once in a fun concert of The Three Counter Tenors, in Istanbul. The first half was Monteverdi, Handel, all the serious counter-tenor repertoire. Then in the second half I sang ‘She was too good to me’ – I heard it on a Chet Baker album and wanted to sing it. So it was me with a spotlight and a piano and a microphone – and the first time I sang it in baritone, then the second time I modulated and used my head voice. But there’s not much Baroque music where you can do that!
Tell me about the new Vivaldi album. I’d never heard [the motet] Nisi Dominus before.In concert, it’s not that well known, though the Stabat Mater is one of his best known vocal compositions. There’s very little of Vivaldi’s vocal music that is known and it’s well worth reviving. The thing is that, if you play Bach with a bad orchestra and without any soul or spirit, you will still discover Bach. It’s still a wonderful composition. For me, he’s the ultimate. The problem is that if you do that with Vivaldi, it sounds like sh*t. Without soul and spirit, the music doesn’t sound. The music uses lots of repetitive formulas and if you don’t make any dynamic or expressive changes, it sounds dull.
You particularly requested that this CD be made with the Australian Baroque Orchestra and conductor Paul Dyer.
What attracted you to them?That’s a difficult question. Why are we moved to tears when one singer sings and not with another singing the same piece? It’s a very subjective feeling of course. I was invited to sing at the Sydney Festival in 1998 and 1999 and after the first year I felt so sad when I had to leave, because even during the rehearsal we knew something special was happening. Funny, nobody talked about it before the concert. Well, the audience went mad and then afterwards we all said ‘You know, I KNEW that it was going to be special!’ We all felt we were cooking, that there was a connection. They didn’t know how good they were – they automatically think anything from Europe must be better – and I told them ‘ You have something better here. I’ve played with all the European Baroque orchestras and this is VERY special’. But apart from that, the Vivaldi album is the most important thing I have done so far. It was my idea from start to finish and it is very close to my heart.