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ANDREAS SCHOLL - A countertenor with a sense of responsibility

Interview by Martin Anderson

Fanfare Volume 24, Number 5 (2001): 30-36.

In the past decade German countertenor Andreas Scholl, 33 last November, has seen his profile rise apparently inexorably.  From the moment in 1992 when he stepped in for René Jacobs in a concert in Pars, his diary has been filled with increasingly prestigious engagement: in 1996, a date with the Collegium Vocale at the Proms in London, his Wigmore Hall debut, still in London, a year later, and the role of Bertarido in Handel's Rodelinda at Glyndebourne a year after that.  Soon he was enticed to leave Harmonia Mundi for Decca, and now, with the publicity machine of one of the majors behind him, Andreas Scholl is big news.  That in itself is quite an advance, I suggested to him -- just 15 or 20 years ago it would have been difficult to imagine a countertenor commanding the musical headlines the way Scholl does today.  His answer has nothing of what we might have to call the divo about it; indeed, in half an hour of conversation, he hardly once talked about himself.
Times have changed.  It's difficult to say what supported what.  There was a complete boom in historical music-making, and along with that there was more room for countertenors to perform, and the countertenors became popular with the concerts.  So the things go together.  And that popularity is still very modest if we compare it with the pop world.  Being someone who is well known in the Baroque-music world is like being someone who's well known in the chess world!  Who's the current champion in Italian chess?  Well, chess amateurs will know, but for us it's probably someone of whom we've never heard."  But the countertenor has increased his market share even within the world of singing: It used to be the bel canto sopranos and Heldentenors who stole the limelight, but that domination has disappeared.  "Fortunately, I would say, both for the countertenors and for the listeners.  Music administration in countries like Germany, with state-supported opera houses, was administrating the same repertoire over the years, with the same music played over and over again.  And finally we have new things to discover and new names, new styles in singing and in playing instruments.  That's very exciting.  I never like to talk about 'ancient music,' but, as Tony Rooley put it once, it's new music the second that string of a lute is plucked and the singer starts to sing -- it's new music because the music is created that very moment.  And it has probably never been heard by an audience before."
It's also new music in the sense that the explosion of interest in Baroque music is bringing up entirely forgotten repertoire.  "And it's worth being discovered.  It's not necessarily the archaeological side of music-making, when someone goes into a library and finds a manuscript that was only once performed several hundred years ago -- that alone doesn't make a piece of music special.  We need to have high-quality music, and we have so many operas that have been huge successes at the time of Handel in London, a lots of Italian operas that have been performed in Italy, and they filled the opera houses at that time -- this is not just unknown music, it's beautiful music.  It needs to be good, and we have tons of music from Baroque times from all over Europe which is unknown.  And pieces like the Stabat Mater of Vivaldi or Nisi Dominus or the Bach solo cantatas for alto: that's the Baroque-music-lover's world, and we know from sales figures that probably 25,000-30,000 people all over Europe buy those CDs.  That's a lot; but if you compare it with the whole classical market, even for a classical-music-lover the Bach solo cantatas are probably unknown.  So, before we try to capture the attention of pop-music-lovers, we have hundreds of thousands of people who care for classical music, and they will love the idea of having access to Baroque music.  That's the next step.  With the change from Harmonia Mundi to Decca, it's very clear that I reach different audiences now, and the sales figures are much bigger.  It's not necessarily pop fans that buy my CDs but classical people that through the advertising have knowledge of me and the existence of those CDs.  The next step, and it's a big challenge, is to widen the acceptance of classical music, especially with young people, with children, and give people the idea that this is really precious, something good for our souls, for our brains.  Of course, that's much more difficult."
There's a useful confluence here, though.  When people come to music through the standard classics they can often get stuck in the mainstream repertoire, but if they are introduced by an inquisitive Baroque musician exploring, say, Telemann and Fasch and Porpora, the barriers are being broken down right at the start.  "Certainly.  I think that's the responsibility of the performer nowadays.  We know that the access to music comes through the artist.  Few people bought the Vivaldi album with Cecilia Bartoli with completely unknown operas because they wanted to know more about Vivaldi's vocal music.  They wanted to know, 'How does Cecilia Bartoli sing this kind of music?  What is her new CD?'  It's a challenge for the artist, and it's also responsibility, because it means that most popular singers can present lots of things to an audience -- very commercial things of dubious quality or wonderful things.  As a sincere artist I will have to take the audience with me on this journey of discovering precious and interesting music, and to find a good balance between popular repertoire -- which is necessary.  We need that as well -- but not only to go into Handel and Gluck arias and Purcell until the end of my life.  But there are things like A Musicall Banquet"---Scholl's latest CD for Decca (466 917-2), reviewed elsewhere in this issue -- "which is certainly not a highly commercial program, but for me it's essential also to record things like that and to discover it together with the audience.  Of course, I discovered it two years before, but when the CD comes out, then the public has a chance to judge the music and the performance.  It's more interesting for performers than 20, 30 years ago, but it brings a certain responsibility, because the temptation is to move into the commercial side and exploit your reputation that you've built for 10 years of singing concerts, and then you're popular with CDs, and then you just do all easy-listening Baroque.  But along with those possibilities the responsibility of the individual musician is much bigger."
I was talking to the English countertenor Andrew Watts the other day, after he had performed in Alfred Schnittke's "Faust Cantata" Seid nüchtern und wachet, and he was lamenting the absence of new music for countertenor.  And it's true that Geoffrey Burgon seems to be the only composer to have produced a sizable corpus of works for the voice.  Does Scholl foresee composers enlarging the repertoire?  "There will be more, I'm sure.  I worked for seven years as assistant in the studio of electronic music in the music academy, the Schola Cantorum, in Basel.  I realized the compositions of other composers from a technical point of view, and I also did some very modest electronic composition myself.  I know there is an interest because the countertenor voice is a new sound, not the stereotype of voices we have, so I think we'll have more composers who will do something like that.  Two days ago I happened to meet someone who worked with me in that studio, a young Swiss composer, Wolfgang Heiniger.  He said, 'We're doing this contemporary-music festival now.  In two years' time we want to have you as artist-in-residence; young composers will write music for you.'  One idea would be to have a collection of Dowland songs and then use the poems of those songs and to commission new songs on them, to ask young composers, 'What is your idea about the next "In darkness let me dwell' -- how would you put that in music?'  It's an interesting idea, but it takes lots of time, and at the start it's always very difficult to foresee; it's a risk.  But it's worth taking that risk.  Again, it comes back to the responsibility of musicians.  We try not to stand still, but we should always have the idea to develop."
Perhaps it's a statistical illusion, since the sample range is necessarily small, but it seems to me that there is far more variety between individual countertenor voices than in any other vocal range:  Sopranos, tenors, etc., generally sound more like one another than countertenors do.  Is that fair comment?  "I wouldn't generalize.  The few really good countertenors that we have -- people like Brian Asawa, David Daniels, Daniel Taylor, Robin Blaze -- if we listen to them we know immediately who's singing because they have those individual voices.  But that is also what makes them so special.  Back in the 70s and 80s there was an English sound of countertenor singing, so that -- apart from two singers who had very distinctive voices, Paul Esswood and James Bowman -- most of them sounded the same.  Even English music-journalist used the word 'hoot' -- 'There's a hooting sound'!  This is what I read several times: 'Let's hope we don't find the hooting sound we usually associate with countertenor singing.'  There has been a uniformity.  But we will have to discover individuality in the voice in other voices as well.  I started in October to teach in music academy in Basel, and I have a very, very talented bass-baritone.  He sings beautifully, and he has his natural voice.  For example, we were working on Bach arias just now, and there's one way he sings which is how we expect a baritone, like the baritone cliché which can still be technically perfect and emotional and all that" -- Scholl breaks off to sing me an illustration of what he means.  "We all know that, we've heard it so many times.  But there are very few baritones who sing naturally, where we think, 'This is the baritone who is speaking to us.'  It's not just a singer who sings the music, but we hear a special character, and then it's not so important to have a beautiful voice.
"The best example is someone like Maria Callas.  Her voice was probably not the aesthetic ideal of round and beautiful bel canto singing; she had lots of edges in her voice, and sometimes sharp sounds -- but she had this character, she was not sounding like the others.  I don't mean we should try to sound different at any price and force that, but in vocal training we should not try to iron out all the individual tones, colors that a singer has.  We experienced that in the entrance exam last year with the jury of teachers when the young singers auditioned.  They were all singing difficult Baroque arias, and it was almost never really convincing.  And then in the end Peter Reidemeister, the director, said, 'Would you sing us a folk song of your native country?'  So the girl from Latvia sang a Latvian folk song, the Brazilian girl sang a Brazilian lullaby.... Ah-ha, ah-ha!  And it came from the heart.  That was a revelation -- they were much more able to express themselves in those simple folk songs than in Baroque arias.  I think it is because they tried to sound the way they thought we would expect them to sound.  With the CDs all around we all know how Emma Kirkby sounds -- and we've all heard so many bad Emma Kirkby imitations.  She's unique and she's great, but there are so many sopranos who try to sound like her -- it's so embarrassing.  It's like trying to sound like a cliché.  I hope this individuality comes back:  It's a precious thing.  I always say we have two audiences.  One is the audience who are deeply impressed by someone who sings fast and very loud and sings a bravura aria. 'Wonderful! Bravo!' they shout after the aria has finished.  They don't care if the words are brought out with the meaning, if there's a relationship between the singing and the text.  We have some funny things in Baroque music, someone singing 'Open my heart with a knife and you will find your name written on it,' and they sing as if spring has come with sweet flowers growing; it's a complete misunderstanding sometimes.  We have to find that back again.  I think this individuality can be achieved.  This is something really precious, and there is an audience that feels that -- and fortunately I feel this audience mostly in Baroque-music concerts.  It's a different kind of audience, not a showcase of audience, not the circus-attraction audience.  There was an article in Der Spiegel or Fokus in Germany where someone was accusing Domingo of not really singing his high C, and that the audience would be so disappointed; this would the high point, the climax, of the concert when he would sing his high C.  And I thought, 'Where are we?  Is this the Olympic Games -- faster, louder, higher?'  It's so stupid!  But fortunately I've seen that an audience can be touched and moved by honesty and by individuality.  And then it doesn't need to be the most beautiful voice or the loudest singer, but just someone who knows what he is singing about."
When I interviewed Robin Blaze for Fanfare (24:4), he kept coming back to the seminal figure of James Bowman, whose massive presence, for younger British countertenor at least, provided an example they have all proved very happy to follow -- until they find their own voices, at any rate.  Is there a comparable figure for countertenors on mainland Europe?  "Well, actually, my big hero was James Bowman.  He was the first countertenor I ever listened to -- and Paul Esswood, and I loved both.  My favorite was James Bowman (that's not a secret), but I also listened a lot to Paul Esswood, whose Bach recordings with Harnoncourt I think are great, and they're still completely valid nowadays.  There are some recordings from the 70s where we say, yes, nowadays we would do that differently, but back then Harnoncourt and Esswood made sense with what they were playing and singing, and then it will have conviction in a hundred years; that's a great thing to achieve."  I'm surprised to hear him talk of Bowman with the same enthusiasm as the British singers for whom he was so important; I had expected Scholl's growing-up in a different vocal tradition would have meant some difference in attitudes to style.  "Actually, I liked him because his voice was the smoothest-sounding.  It's not sensible conversation to say, 'His high C is beautiful' or 'He can sing fast' -- it's just that you listen and you're touched and you're moved, and I think that was the most important thing for me.  But I was also aware that this was achieved through sincerity, and the sincerity means that I find my approach.  I open a piece of music; I have a text (that's the great thing for singers: I wonder how instrumentalists do that).
"I have a three-step theory.  I have a possibility to sing a Bach aria without thinking about what I am singing.  And if I make an effort and think about the context -- at what moment comes this aria?  Why are those words there? -- then it's like a deep hole in front of me and I have to jump in and I don't know how deep it will be.  It can take weeks on just one recit, to just speak it, speak it, speak it over and over again, because it's rhetorical.  And then in the end I have to think 'This is my idea.'  That's the first step.  Then I have to think:  Second step -- what are the tools, what are the measures I have to take with my voice to give meaning to this text and to bring out the message?  And the third step is to hope that the audience understands what I mean.  This is very individual, and the second you try to copy another singer you lose this -- the audience will feel that.  It's not a conscious awareness of the audience; they won't realize that you put an emphasis on this word here or there, that you stretched this syllable a bit, or you colored a word.  They won't hear all the detail, but all the details and all the work that you put into an interpretation will lead to complete idea.  And that is either convincing or not.
"I had the good luck to attend the Handel Festival in Göttingen last year (unfortunately, not on any of the days when Scholl was singing), and was amazed at the emotional impact of Handel's opera Rodelinda (this time the role of Bertalido was sung by Robin Blaze):  All mannerisms and period formulas, which nonetheless gave the work a profound punch -- I spent most of the time with tears in my eyes.  "That's what I mean.  That's exactly what I wanted to say:  That it's worth investing in those details because they will be heard -- not each of them, and not in a kind of way that the audience adds up, but it leads into a convincing performance, and the audience will probably simply feel, 'This man knows what he sings about' or 'This woman knows what she sings about,' and this is only possible if you have invested some thought.  Unreflected singing will lead to comments like 'Oh, beautiful voice,' or 'Good legato,' or 'Look how she or he can sing fast,' but it will never lead to the ideal like: 'This really touched me,' and 'This must be someone who is intelligent, and who has invested some work in this music.'"
Scholl's recording of Dowland's collection A Musicall Banquet (Decca 499 917-2) can be expected to introduce thousands to Dowland's melancholy, and very beautiful, world.  Can we look forward to more of the same from him?  "We will have a folk-song recording in May.  Since I am a big admirer of Alfred Deller, who recorded three or four LPs entirely dedicated to folk songs, I thought now I'm ready to try the same and do a CD entirely dedicated to folk song, but in a kind of 21st-century style.  The nice thing with those folk songs is that we don't have anything like authentic accompaniment, just the melody and the words, and they have never been performed as art songs.  They shouldn't be art songs -- it's popular music, and every generation needed to find its way to accompany those songs.  So there were times when they have been sung without accompaniment; probably at the beginning of the century they have been performed with piano, and three hundred years ago with lute.
"The exciting thing is that the authentic way of doing those songs is to find our way.  We will do some of the songs with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, so we will record that in New York; we will have some songs with lute and harp; and along with the orchestra some instruments like lute and dulcimer.  Some things will sound a bit like popular music; others will sound a bit -- how shall I say? -- avant-garde, with lots of dissonance; and others will sound quite traditional in the way we accompany them.  We have so many musicologists with their prescriptions of how we 'should' do things, but the authentic way with folk songs is to find your own way.  That's a challenge, and I'm very much looking forward to it.  In the summer a big project is a tour with the ABO, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra: They will come to Europe for the very first time, and we will have six concerts all over Europe -- Vienna, the London Proms, Bremen, Wiesbaden.  So it will be really fun to show them Europe, since this is the place I come from.  Then in January next year we will do Rodelinda again at the Théâtre du Chatelet [Paris].  And May next year will be my first Giulio Cesare production in Copenhagen, so I'm really looking forward to that."
One might imagine that recording with one of the majors might restrict his repertoire.  Does he still enjoy freedom of choice with Decca?  "Yes.  The nice thing about that is that I constantly propose new projects to them, and then we just sit together and say what could be the next project.  We have already three or four more ideas that could come after the folk songs.  Since we want to keep a balance, we know that A Musicall Banquet was a more musicological program, and the folk songs will be more popular, so the next should probably again a new discovery.  We have ideas about Italian cantatas that have not yet been recorded, with continuo group or with orchestra even.  So we have to see!"