There are countertenors and there is Andreas Scholl.
This is the only male alto voice which is recognizable after one phrase, and on a good day it is a glorious instrument which can fill the Albert Hall; sadly, this was not one of those days, it being clear from the outset that Scholl was unwell, so it was all the more remarkable that the concert was a roaring success. This all-Purcell evening in which Scholl was partnered by Philippe Jaroussky and the Ensemble Artaserse brought this wonderful, mostly neglected music to a huge and appreciative audience.
Those of us old enough to have grown up with Alfred and Mark Deller singing these duets and arias were of course in heaven; the great Castrati of Handel’s day may have bitched and whined about their billing and their trills, but here we had two singers as collaborative as their great father-and-son predecessors. Nothing paternal or filial about Scholl and Jaroussky however, who both relished the ample opportunities Purcell gives for amiable rivalry.
The concert was beautifully conceived, each piece seeming to flow naturally on to the next, with the superb Ensemble Artaserse providing sparkling support. Jaroussky’s ‘Fairest Isle’ was typical of his singing; exquisitely phrased, bitingly projected, elegantly fluent, yet lacking any special individual quality or particular sensitivity to the words. Scholl’s ‘Strike the Viol’ which followed it may have lacked his customary muscularity of tone, but listening to his voicing of just one word, ‘touch’ was enough to remind us that his is a unique art.
Jaroussky’s mellifluous tone was heard to great advantage in ‘Now that the sun’, and he negotiated the florid ‘Hallelujahs’ with panache, but again what I heard was a lovely (in both senses) male soprano, adept in the higher reaches but as yet lacking depth, both in the technical and interpretative senses of that word. Scholl’s ‘One charming night’ gave an apt contrast; the singing was nowhere near as confident and flawless as the younger man’s, but the tone, the feeling for the words – ‘thousand’ and ‘pleasure’ – gave a completely different experience. Jaroussky skims delightfully over the surface: Scholl takes you right down into the depths.
Scholl was in better vocal form after the interval, and he gave a tremendous performance of the complex ‘O solitude’. Jaroussky shaped the mournful phrases of ‘O let me weep’ with delicacy, and both singers enjoyed themselves with ‘Now the Night’, which they repeated as their third encore, complete with appropriate antics. It was however the first encore which provided the evening’s most stunning singing: in what Sir Nicholas Kenyon delightedly remarked to me was “a tribute to frozen roads”, Scholl sang the chromatically daring ‘What Power art Thou?’ from King Arthur: often referred to as ‘The Cold Genius aria’ or ‘The Frost scene’, this fascinating piece evokes the spirit of Winter with what must be one of the most taxing of all vocal lines in its depiction of the shivering cold, and with an orchestral accompaniment as evocative as it is daring. The yell of “Bravo!” which followed it was richly deserved.
I want to hear much more from the Ensemble Artaserse, especially the flutes and those wonderfully skittish violins, and Jaroussky’s agile singing and youthful exuberance were a joy to hear and see, but as always it was Scholl who took us to the heart of the composer of whom it was said that only in heaven could his harmony be exceeded.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk