26 Jan 2020

Twilight People: Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin at Wigmore Hall

Twilight people: existing betwixt and between states, slipping the bounds of categorisation, on the edge of the norm.

This is the title which the German countertenor Andreas Scholl and his Israeli wife, pianist Tamar Halperin, have chosen for several of their performances in recent years, and it is also the title of their latest disc - which launched BMG’s new Modern Recordings series in November - the programme of which they brought to Wigmore Hall following performances at the Concertgebouw and elsewhere in the UK.

Presenting works by Britten and Vaughan Williams, Copland and Berg, as well as by less well-known contemporary composers Israeli Ari Frankel and Egyptian-born Joseph Tawadros, the duo seek to explore the territory that lies between folk music and art song. At Wigmore Hall they supplemented the items on the disc in order to create two parallel sequences, Arvo Pärt balancing Frankel at the start of the respective halves, Vaughan Williams in conversation with Berg in the centre, and, at least as originally intended, Britten followed by Tawadros bringing each half to a close. Many songs segued without pause; interspersed between the songs were works for solo piano by John Cage.

There may have arrived quite a few new kids on the countertenor block since Scholl began his career, but there can be few who have such purity of tone, quasi-angelic lyricism and directness of utterance as the German singer. Texts were given due and customary care, and there were moments of lightness and gentle humour to counter the gravity of spirit. Halperin, who is also a harpsichordist and who undertook doctoral research on the music of Bach, combines clarity and sure definition - of tone and architecture - with a delicate, precise manner of articulation: her slender fingers craft strong forms which are delivered with, paradoxically, astonishing gentleness and power.

I couldn’t help feeling, though, that despite the diversity of composer names on the programme list, there was a certain ‘sameness’ as the sequence of songs unfolded - an interpretative levelling, as it were; unfailingly beautiful, Scholl’s accounts did not journey to the potential extremes of the emotional terrain, but settled in a safe middle ground, the volume and expressive temperature generally moderate.

Perhaps the high temple of art song fosters a certain mood and manner, consciously or otherwise? Scholl’s English folksongs, as arranged by Britten and Vaughan Williams, were more drawing-room than folk-club, lofty rather than soulful. ‘The Ashgrove’ was beautiful but Scholl was a rather ‘detached’ balladeer; ‘Greensleeves’ had greater range of vocal colour, with the proclamations of the refrain, “Greensleeves was all my joy”, ringing with clarion strength and directness. In the latter, too, we were reminded by the piano’s dissonant text-pointing and disrupting spread chords, that Britten’s songs are essentially art song transformations which extract from the folk source, pure or corrupted, material that is then made anew for the composer’s own purposes. In this way, it was fitting that the ‘The Salley Gardens’ had a ‘slight edginess’ as the singer’s mellifluous line was countered with the piano’s quiet, somewhat dry staccatos, capturing the protagonist’s discomfort as he looks back ruefully on his foolish youth.

Britten looked to Grainger and Moeran in his approach, as composer-arranger, to the folk sources, rejecting what he perceived as Vaughan Williams’ conservative - musical and political - pastoralism. But, ‘In the Spring’ offered Scholl the opportunity to showcase the melodism to which Vaughan Williams drew attention, as the essence of the folksong, in his review of Britten’s first volume of folk settings (in the Journal of the English Folk Song and Dance Society, December 1943): ‘Are we old fogeys of the Folk-song movement getting into a rut? If so, it is very good for us to be pulled out of it by such fiery young steeds as Benjamin Britten and Herbert Murill. We see one side of a folk-song, they see the other [...] The tune’s the thing with which we’ll catch the conscience of the composer.’ ‘Silent noon’ (from The House of Life) and ‘Tired’ (from Four Last Songs (1958)) require a more nuanced engagement with the text. The latter, which sets a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams describing her sleeping husband, was a tender lullaby, though the piano’s low rocking intimated a darkness which hinted at the eternal sleep to come, the closing cadence seemingly infused with quiet wistfulness. The unaccompanied opening of ‘The twilight people’ (setting Seamus O’Sullivan) was poised and melancholy, though Scholl revealed the depth and complexity of the protagonist’s sadness, heightening the cry, “Twilight people, why will you still be crying,/ Crying and calling to me out of the trees?”

It was, however, Halperin’s interpretations of Cage which raised the emotional heat. As she leant over the Steinway keyboard, her motionless shoulders belied the almost harrowing intensity of the ostinato repetitions of ‘Soliloquy’ which grew too a cavernous, metallic roar, while in ‘Jazz Study’ the contrasting rhythmic idioms - boogie-woogie, ragtime and blues - seemed to fight contentiously against assimilation, threatening to burst beyond the boundaries. Indeed, ‘Jazz Study’ had erupted from the applause for the preceding song, Copland’s ‘I bought me a cat’ (from Old American Songs Set 1), which made for an odd sandwich-filling between the two Cage piano works, especially as Scholl’s re-enactment of the cacophonous menagerie was rather genteel. Previously, ‘The little horses’ and ‘At the river’ (from Set 2) had played to Scholl’s lyrical strengths, yet again the sentiments seem to be politely presented rather than ‘lived within’.

Berg’s ‘Abschied’ saw Scholl employ his natural baritone - which is light and fresh; ‘Vielgeliebte schone Frau’ was more sultry, while Berg’s Rückert setting, ‘Ferne Lieder’, trembled with a suppressed intensity at the close: “Under die fernen Lieder sind/ Laut geword’nes Schweigen” (And the distant songs turn into a loud silence). It was, however, the unfamiliar songs that I found most engaging and moving. The piano’s cool bare fifths at the start of Ari Frankel’s ‘The rest’ seemed to draw one into the world of Schubert’s Leiermann, the almost monotonal vocal line conjuring that song’s juxtaposition of movement and stasis, as the hurdy-gurdy turns but the pedal tones and melodic repetitions deny life. It was a challenging song with which to open the recital, and Scholl skilfully crafted the transition from constriction to increasing focus and fullness, before blanching the colour at the close. No less impressive were, as a second-half counterpart, Arvo Pärt’s ‘Vater unser’ and, especially, ‘Es sang vor langen Jahren’, in which the piano’s repetitions were this time juxtaposed with expertly negotiated contrasts of vocal register. Here, Scholl, singing in his native tongue, conveyed greater sensitivity to the details of the text, poignantly painting an image of memory embodied in a nightingale’s song.

I was captivated by Joseph Tawadros’ ‘Beauty is life’ (setting Kahlil Gibran) which closed the first half of the recital. Again, harmonic stasis was countered by an almost wild rhythmic energy which rushed forth in the piano from the opening vocalise: “Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.” The final vocal fall, resting on dissonance, was a fine embodiment of the poetic dichotomy, “you are eternity and you are the mirror”. I was disappointed that Scholl and Halperin denied us the opportunity to hear Tawadros’ ‘A truth’ - another Gibran setting that was originally designed to bring the recital to a symmetrical close - which they replaced with Brahms’ ‘In stiller Nacht’.

We had two encores: first, Shlomo Gronich's 'Al Na Telech', an arrangment of Bach’s C major Prelude BWV846, and then an arrangement by Halperin of ‘O Waly Waly’. The latter, a three-way conversation between the folk past, Britten and Halperin was a perfect embodiment of the underlying ethos of the recital.

Claire Seymour

Andreas Scholl (countertenor), Tamar Halperin (piano)

Ari Frankel: ‘The Rest’; Copland: ‘The Little Horses’, ‘At the river’; Vaughan Williams: ‘In the Spring’; Berg: ‘Wo der Goldregen steht’; Vaughan Williams: ‘Silent Noon’; Cage: ‘Soliloquy’; Copland: ‘I Bought me a Cat’; Cage: ‘Jazz Study’; Britten: ‘The Ash Grove’; Joseph Tawadros: ‘Beauty is Life’ (arr. Matt McMahon); Pärt: ‘Es sang vor langen Jahren’, ‘Vater unser’; Britten: ‘Greensleeves’; Berg: ‘Abschied’, ‘Vielgeliebte schöne Frau’, ‘Ferne Lieder’; Vaughan Williams: ‘The Twilight People’, ‘Tired’; Cage: ‘In a Landscape’; Britten: ‘The Salley Gardens’; Brahms: ‘In stiller Nacht’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 24th January 2020.