09 Jun 2011

Andreas Scholl, Wigmore Hall

A capacity crowd at the Wigmore Hall eagerly awaited the arrival of Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin on the platform on Tuesday evening.

A capacity crowd at the Wigmore Hall eagerly awaited the arrival of Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin on the platform on Tuesday evening. Given the famed serene beauty of Scholl’s countertenor, the programme of mostly slow, contemplative songs from sixteenth- and seventeenth- century England, followed by simple canzonettas by Haydn and folksong arrangements by Brahms, promised great delights

However, Scholl took some time to settle down. Purcell has formed a staple element of his concert programmes and recordings of recent years, and he is renowned for the quiet, controlled restraint which so much of this repertoire demands; yet, the opening two songs suffered from a rather constricted, thin tone and a few problems with intonation. ‘Music for a while’ epitomises the composer’s deep, reflective style, characterised by a controlled simplicity which calls for clarity of line and carefully, flowing phrases. One would expect Scholl to effortlessly deliver the goods, but in contrast to the dark, expressive elaborations of Israeli harpsichord Tamar Halperin’s introductory harpsichord realisation, the vocal line rather lacked shape and focus, the phrases disrupted by exaggerated by over-emphasis on textual repetitions.

Scholl’s diction was also quite poor with consonants and vowels all sounding rather similar. Although it did improve as the evening progressed, he did not ever quite capture the subtleties of the texts, the rich suggestions latent in its metaphors and understatements — as in, for example, Johnson’s ‘Have you seen the bright lily grow/ Before rude hands have touched it?’ The exclamatory flourishes of ‘Sweeter than roses’ did, however, demonstrate his theatricality as the striking textual images triggered rapidly changing vocal moods, complemented by varied accompanying textures.

The first instrumental item completed this Purcellian group. Halperin’s rendering of ‘Round O’ was delicate and restrained; thoughtful ritenuti in the variations made the restatements of the theme seem relaxed and inevitable. Later, the slow movement of Handel’s F Major suite was similarly affective; the repeated middle-register chords above which the ornate stream of melody unfolds were evenly and carefully placed, a ceaseless, sustained bed of sound for the decorative figurations above. One longed for several more movements from this work.

Scholl continued with repertory by lutenists associated with the Elizabethan and Stuart courts — John Dowland, Robert Johnson and Thomas Campion. Here there was more attention to the small details in the texts: in ‘Sorrow, stay’, Scholl’s gentle tone brought out the quiet despair of phrases such as ‘Mark me not to endless pain’, and some simple word-painting was made more pungent by oppositions of major and minor tonalities. The energy and optimism of ‘Say, Love, if ever thou didst find’ introduced a welcome contrast to the melancholy mood. Campion’s ‘I care not for these ladies’ was the most bright and fresh of these songs, as Scholl really engaged with the narrative, subtly changing tempo, pausing or altering emphases to convey the wit and humour of the text. The cry — ‘forsooth: let go!’ — of the girl who is courted and kissed by the poet-speaker, was at first one of denial, then lacked conviction, and finally seemed decidedly inviting!

A return to Purcell brought the first half to a close, and the sensuous sentiments of ‘O solitude’ brought forth a greater range of colour from Scholl, as he shaped the wide ranging phrases effectively, making expressive use of his dark-hued lower register.

After the interval, Scholl seemed more relaxed and the songs by Haydn and Brahms were eloquently delivered. The simplicity of Haydn’s three canzonettas was enlivened by the light, playful accompanying gestures which Halperin, now seated at the piano, introduced, and she demonstrated a similar understated restraint and firm appreciation of classical balance and form in the composer’s Sonata in A, the movements propelling ceaselessly forward into one coherent whole. In the ornate triplets of the Andante, Halperin sustained the evenness of the continuous flowing line while shaping individual motifs with grace. Subtle manipulation of the tempo deepened the expressive power of the minor key Trio in the Minuet, before a rapid alleviating of mood in the jovial Finale.

Scholl seemed most at home in four folksongs selected from Brahms’ Deutsche Volkslieder. In ‘Guten Abend’ he effectively conveyed the tension between the two voices, ‘Er’ and ‘Sie’, engaged in an awkward discussion about love. A similar opposition in ‘Es ging ein Maidlein zarte’ (A tender maid went out’) was further enhanced by the contrasting accompanying textures, rich chords conveying the natural world in which the ‘cheerful healthy maiden’ delighted, being juxtaposed with low halting, hollow octaves. Halperin brought much insight to these rich accompaniments, and also showed great invention in the improvisatory accompaniments to the three English folk-songs which concluded the recital. Now fully at ease, Scholl’s warmer and more relaxed tone led to increased textual clarity, which in turn helped him develop a closer relationship with the audience.

Indeed, throughout the performance Scholl sought to engage directly with his listeners, frequently prefacing the songs with explanations and introductions. Occasionally this destroyed the continuity of mood that the music itself established, however; and, similarly, there was rather too much to-ing and fro-ing between items, as the performers left and re-entered the stage when they were not themselves performing.

There was even some audience participation — not a regular occurrence at the Wigmore Hall! — when, before the interval, Scholl invited us to join in with the refrain of Purcell's ‘Man is for the Woman Made’, in which he himself deployed his conventional tenor register. According to his preamble, Purcell intended the song to provide some light relief for the original theatre audiences. A little surprised, but delighted by the invitation, the Hall proved in fine voice. Indeed, the recital had begun rather unconventionally when one rather exuberant member of the audience greeted the appearance of their ‘idol’ with football-crowd style whooping — possibly the first time such ‘unmusical’ sounds had been heard inside the hallowed walls of the Hall? The more familiar appreciative cries of ‘Bravo’ brought the evening to a warm conclusion.

Claire Seymour


Purcell: Music for a while; Sweeter than roses; Round O
Dowland: Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears; I saw my lady weep; Say, Love, if ever thou didst find
Handel: Two movements from Suite No.2 in F
Johnson: Have you seen the bright lily grow?
Campion: I care not for these ladies
Purcell: O solitude, my sweetest choice; Man is for the woman made
Haydn: Two English Canzonettas; Sonata in A HXVI:12
Brahms: Four folksongs arranged from the Deutsche Volkslieder
Three Traditional Folksongs: I will give my love an apple; O waly waly; My love is like a red, red rose