May 17-18, 1997
Some men with very high voices find it hard to keep their feel on the ground, but not this one, reports Shirley Apthorp
Music buffs in Europe are tired of fads for hot young singers. They're picked up by pushy CD companies, hyped to within an inch of their life, and burn out before they reach a satisfying level of artistic maturity. But on one point nearly everyone agrees: Andreas Scholl is different. For a start, he's not heavily promoted. There are no soft-focus publicity posters, and if he's starting to appear on the front cover of music magazines, it's only in response to existing clamour from record buyers. Then there's his voice: Scholl is a countertenor, a rarity even in a world increasingly obsessed with historical veracity. And by no means least, there's his personality. Scholl has no patience with star-making hysteria. Both his feet are planted firmly on the ground, and he's simply not interested in being anything other than a well-mannered young guy. He can even answer tiresome questions about his high range with aplomb. Every man has a falsetto voice, he says. Being able to use it as a countertenor is simply a matter of predisposition.
"I compare it with people who have certain talents. Everybody can paint. But not everybody's a painter. Everybody can sing. But not everybody's a singer. Somehow you're given certain possibilities in your life, certain talents, and this is one talent I got."
As a teenager in Germany, it didn't feel like a great leap from being a soprano to singing as an alto in the Kiedricher Chorbuben, or boy's choir, in his home town of Wiesbaden. His year of compulsory military service presented more problems.
"Imagine being in the army, in a room together with seven men and then starting to sing in a countertenor voice...... They get strange ideas about what has happened to you! But somehow there was a good sense of friendship and community there. I even once performed in uniform."
A regimental concert? Not exactly. "A colonel was passing by on a manoeuvre, and the sergeant who was responsible for our platoon said, 'Do you know, Colonel, we have a singer in our group?' But he didn't know what kind of voice I had. And so the colonel said, 'Okay, sing something for us.' I tried to explain, 'It's a kind of strange voice, but it comes from this English tradition of singing...I'm scared everybody will laugh if they hear me.' And he said, 'Right, this is an order: You will sing, and nobody will laugh.' So I started singing a piece, and it was a really incredible atmosphere, because nobody laughed and they were all amazed by this voice."
After the army came music studies at the Schola Cantorum in Basel. Nobody laughed there, either, and Scholl's progress was rapid. Soon he was being invited to perform with leading early-music groups around Europe, and a recording contract with Harmonia Mundi France followed quickly. Amazement remains a common reaction to his performances.
Critics have dubbed him the countertenor of his generation; his recordings begin to gather awards the minute they are released. Everyone agrees: his tone is golden and seamless, his technique formidable, his musicianship inspired. That he is young and beautiful is almost irrelevant - a refreshing change in a market that often sells singers as if they were supermodels.
That only leaves burn-out to worry about. But it's going too far too fast that does his peers in, and from the start Scholl has been in no hurry. For some years he favoured oratorios, with only a couple of solo numbers. His recital discs have been put together at a leisurely pace and he won't make his operatic debut until next year (at Glyndebourne).
"Natural laziness protected me from being too ambitious, because singing big parts demands a lot of time," he claims disarmingly. "I know where my limits are, and I'm getting plenty of recognition for what I'm doing. So I don't need to stick out in a solo ensemble, or behave like a diva. No singer creates his own voice. You can be proud or happy about the work you've done with this voice - learning repertoire, studying interpretation. But you should never forget that what it all comes from is something you did not earn. It's just given. This is a very healthy way of keeping from being too ambitious or vain."
Andreas Scholl appears at the Brisbane Biennial Festival of Music singing Vivaldi Vocal Masterworks with Ensemble 415 on June 1 and 4 and a recital program on June 2
Photo is from an announcement on the Festival of Music site.