Jaroussky/Scholl/Artaserse Ensemble, Barbican

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The Independent Culture

‘Sometimes a recital can be a narcissistic thing,’ the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky told an interviewer recently, adding that he ‘liked to be in dialogue with another voice’.

And thus it was that he and the German countertenor Andreas Scholl came to inhabit the same stage in identical grey suits, in a hall packed to the rafters. If one of these superstars is a celestial event, the two are like the sun and moon, not intended by nature to meet.

As founder of the feast, Jaroussky had brought along his period band, the Ensemble Artaserse, and he had chosen English terrain – the songs of Henry Purcell - for the encounter. Thus for the second time in a week – following Sandrine Piau at the Wigmore – English audiences could savour the music of their native Orpheus, as refracted through a French lens. And they could carry out a fascinating vocal compare-and-contrast on the front-running countertenors of the day.

Limbering up with an instrumental sinfonia, the ensemble established a pleasantly beguiling sound-world, then, accompanied by two treble recorders, Jaroussky and Scholl sang a duet from ‘Timon of Athens’. Jaroussky is a soprano and Scholl a mezzo: first impressions were that Jaroussky’s sound was brighter, more focused, more flexible, a racing yacht to Scholl’s stolid steamer. Jaroussky sang ‘Fairest isle’ with soaring sweetness, each phrase exquisitely shaped and controlled; Scholl’s delivery of ‘Strike the viol’ seemed muted and almost stiff in comparison, but his English diction was better. Little by little they found a way to meld their sounds, with ravishing results.

The whole thing was far too amicable to be a contest, and their voices were far too different, but if the evening could be said to have a high point it was undoubtedly Scholl’s delivery of ‘O solitude’, a small masterpiece in which a majestic nature-poem by Kathleen Philips is set to breathtaking music. Here at last we were reminded what a consummate artist Scholl is, with a unique gift for making the world stand still. Thereafter the duets and reciprocal solos spun out in a shifting kaleidoscope of comedy, gravity, and ecstasy, with Purcell reigning supreme. If Jaroussky’s sound is the most delicate sauce picante, Scholl’s is the perfect palate-cleanser. Take your pick – or enjoy them both.