An alluring and potent charm

The subtle, sheer beauty of Andreas Scholl's alto has set the baroque world alight. Andrew Stewart meets a Proms star who still doesn't consider himself an artist
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In an age apparently burdened with grief at the lack of inspired and inspiring singers, news travels fast about the accomplishments of any young performer who shows the merest hint of individuality. Andreas Scholl is held by many impartial observers to be the finest counter-tenor of his generation, a not insignificant distinction for a singer whose contemporaries include such names as Dominique Visse, Robin Blaze, David Daniels and Pascal Bertin. For once, the claim stands up to the performance test.

Scholl, a native of Wiesbaden in south-west Germany, received a thorough grounding in musicianship as a chorister with the venerable Kiedriche Chorbuben, singing soprano and alto until his voice broke. A spell of national service delivered him from the fate of becoming an anonymous choral tenor, the direction mapped out by Scholl's Chorbuben peers. "There is no tradition in Germany of singing counter-tenor," he observes. "Quite often people are uninformed and, especially in small towns, they react to the voice type as if it is unnatural. It was not such a problem with those involved with training the choir, but it was their friends and relatives who would make silly remarks. When I was in the army, I went home at weekends and continued to sing tenor with the choir. But the break from singing alto was never a problem."

In 1987 Scholl enrolled at Basle's celebrated Schola Cantorum, prefacing his college leaving recital five years later with a critically acclaimed solo debut at the Theatre Grevin in Paris. He has since appeared in concert and on disc with John Eliot Gardiner, William Christie, Philippe Herreweghe and other seasoned early-music specialists; his second solo recording, of Vivaldi's Stabat Mater, is in the running to receive a Gramophone award, and future plans include a disc of Bach's solo cantatas.

Perhaps the most alluring, and potent, charm of Scholl's voice lies in its seamless quality, yielding a smooth falsetto from its upper reaches down to the region where most male altos convert to regulation baritone. Apart from tonal consistency, the low foundation of his natural head voice means that he is not forced to make technical compromises in order to negotiate the often wild leaps and vertiginous scale passages presented, for example, in the stage works of Handel and his contemporaries. "I'm lucky that my head voice has such a low range, which means I can sing the entire alto repertoire using only that tone. Of course, the colour of the voice changes from low to high, but there is no need for me to switch to chest voice, unless it is for dramatic effect." The 29-year- old singer cites "For He is like a refiner's fire" from Messiah or the furious final aria of Vivaldi's cantata Cessate, omai cessate as suitable cases for "mixed" voice treatment; otherwise, he remains content to introduce as much expressive colour and variety as possible into his virile falsetto tone.

Scholl's focused, ever-pure sound belies the control required to keep the voice in place, an achievement that any post-pubescent male who has ever attempted to sing falsetto will readily appreciate. Scholl, however, denies that the counter-tenor is a breed apart from other singers. "I know for sure that my teacher Richard Levitt did not teach me any differently from his other pupils, so there was no special training for me - just a healthy way of relaxed singing." It all sounds simple enough, although Scholl is clearly blessed with a natural ability that has been thoughtfully refined by his mentors in Basle, Levitt and fellow counter-tenor Rene Jacobs among them. Although his professional solo career spans barely four years, Scholl's musical assurance and intelligent singing testify to the good work of his teachers and the wealth of experience he gained with the Chorbuben.

The impressive outcome of nature and nurture can be heard tonight in BBC1's broadcast of Scholl's Proms debut, made in the company of the equally gifted soprano Maria Bayo and accompanied by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with Rene Jacobs as a sympathetic conductor. Two of Scholl's arias in this baroque evening (recorded on 2 August) - "Va tacito e nascosto" from Handel's Julius Caesar (Giulio Cesare) and the "Esurientes" from Bach's Magnificat - serve full notice of his delight in expressive singing, his subtle response to words and the sheer beauty of his voice.

"If there's something like a philosophy of singing," he says, "I think it means that the art is not showing that it is an art. The art is to touch the hearts of your audience, and I am ready and open to express the music in that way." No matter the technical demands of even the most fiendish aria, Scholl suggests, the audience should never be aware of the difficulties. "One could say that to create the maximum effect on an audience requires the minimum effort, so that emotions are neither exaggerated nor too little. I never talk about 'art' in relation to singing. I don't consider myself to be an artist: as singers, we are given an instrument with which to work, but the secret is to know what the piece needs and to have a strong personal idea of what it means."

Listening to Scholl's latest release of English lute and folk songs on the Harmonia Mundi label suggests that he knows exactly how to manipulate and fashion sounds to match the mood of a text. In common with the best folk singers, he gets to the sad heart of a ballad such as I will give my love an apple or Barbara Allen. And then there are the striking similarities between what Scholl has to offer in this repertoire and the plaintive style of Alfred Deller, inviting inevitable comparisons with the only begetter of the whole English counter-tenor tradition. "I didn't record those pieces to compete with other counter-tenors," Scholl notes. "I touched on part of that huge lute song repertoire in my studies and realised that they brought a new dimension to singing."

He admits that he was inspired by Deller's legendary recording of The Three Ravens, with its emphasis on story-telling. "Performing a song like Barbara Allen is like reading a story to the audience, so they become fascinated by what is going to happen next. It is an incredible pleasure for me to tell those melancholy stories, which appeal so directly to people." Vocal agility, tonal beauty and range count for little in Scholl's book unless they are allied to an understanding of words and a desire to articulate the moods they suggest. "An old couple once came up after a concert and said that they had been so moved, which means more to me than hearing how a specialist critic reacted to a phrase in a Bach aria."

Those who speak with certainty of "authentic" singers of early vocal music, he suggests, usually dodge the issue of emotional expression. "Yes, it's necessary to know about period instruments and ornamentation, and to try to discover how music might have been performed. But that is not enough. I have been to so many concerts where afterwards people have said, 'It was boring, but it was authentic.' Authenticity is no excuse for boring performances, so we should always be aware that the music we play and sing today exists in the very moment. It must not be like opening a 300- year-old bottle of wine, but rather like creating the work fresh today."

n Andreas Scholl can be seen singing extracts from Handel's 'Julius Caesar' and Bach's Magnificat: tonight 10.50pm BBC1. He returns to the Proms for more Bach at 10pm on 10 September (booking: 0171-589 8212)