In the beginning were the castrati. When they died out, their music was colonised by women. Then, after a 150-year gap, the male alto voice was rediscovered, and rechristened with its Purcellian name, "counter-tenor". Alfred Deller began the process of recolonisation, and after him the trumpet-toned James Bowman. René Jacobs infused the new voice with melting femininity, Jochen Kowalski injected camp, and the black American Derek Lee Ragin came across like a diva. Then the floodgates opened: for every David Daniels there were dozens of wannabes, whose only dubious qualification was an ability to sing high.
Within this enclave the extraordinary Andreas Scholl is a breed apart. Taught by Jacobs and Bowman, this Clark Kent lookalike from Wiesbaden has been breaking the countertenor mould ever since he settled into it. His trademark may be a heart-stopping vocal purity, and his initial acclaim may have been for his superlative Handel, but what he's doing with his instrument now is bracingly unexpected.
Wayfaring Stranger is the title of the CD he released last week, and its contents are as odd a meld as the immaculately butch figure amid Hockneyesque trees on its cover. The lyric that gives it its title are some Appalachian verses based on a quotation from Exodus; the other folk songs in this collection all hail from England, Ireland, and the New World. And if you have trouble getting your mind round the idea of the hero of Rodelinda putting his fabulous voice at the service of "I loved a lass", you may have trouble getting your ear round the combination of this voice, these lyrics, and a full-dress chamber orchestra.
How on earth did it happen? Scholl's reply is that the idea has long been gestating. "I'm always looking for repertoire that I can relate to, whether because it interests me, or suits my voice, or is just fun to do – that's how my baroque recordings began. And when Harmonia Mundi released my CD of folk songs and lute songs, I noticed that they put the folk songs bigger on the cover, even though there were only a handful of them. I wouldn't have dared put out a complete album of folk songs, but Harmonia Mundi clearly realised their marketability. I had just put them in to test the water." And the water turned out to be warm.
His hero in this respect, as in many others, was Alfred Deller: "I was impressed by the way he could deliver these songs for an hour at a stretch – I wasn't sure I could do it at the same level of intensity. Because you have to tread a very thin line: this sort of music doesn't demand a great classical singer – a great singer's ego could seriously get in the way." He goes on to stress the simplicity required, the way the voice must colour itself, the way it must avoid histrionic exaggeration. "For these songs are not compositions. They were not intended to be printed – they were just around in the ether. They're not art music."
But surely his new CD is art music? "I don't think so. I look at it as storytelling." But the mode is chamber classical! "Okay, we're using the orchestra as an instrument, but every generation has to find its own way to arrange these songs. The people who sang them first probably didn't play the lute or the harp – those came later, and are not strictly speaking authentic. The question became: How would I like to hear these songs today? I wanted to find a way I could relate to." Deller-type baroque accompaniments wouldn't do for the 21st century.
Scholl found his answer in a recording of Wayfaring Stranger by the jazz bassist Charlie Haden. "He sang it with almost no voice at all, but I thought his arrangement – using an orchestra, creating a mood with dissonant chords – was fantastic. I decided that was the way I wanted to go." Scholl played the record to his orchestrator Craig Leon, who then delivered the goods.
To be honest, I don't think Scholl's voice varies enough in its colouring, and his version of "Blow the Wind Southerly" is no match for Kathleen Ferrier's: while he tiptoes brightly across the top of the notes, she gets deep inside them. On the other hand, when he comes to the ballad "Henry Martin", something weird happens: a second voice chimes in – a broad Scots baritone. Can that be Scholl as well?
"Yes. I did it on the spur of the moment. I like the idea of playing different characters. Some people have a photographic memory, but mine is for sound: if I hear something interesting, I'm immediately inspired to imitate it." This man could do cabaret.
So it's no surprise to find he's currently at work on a pop album – conceived, composed, and part-performed by him in his own hi-tech studio. "Soul-funk for a grown-up audience" is his label: its elements will include bossa nova and jazz, but will emphatically not contain "Ombra mai fu" with a techno beat. "I would never travesty Baroque music – it's an illusion to think that we need to change Baroque compositions to suit our time, to make them more accessible. It's an insult to the audience when you take out the complexities and send a message saying "Dear audience, you are too stupid to understand this music in its original form, so here's a lighter version."
His next CD will bring him back on course – a collection of Italian baroque arias, never before recorded – but having tasted blood with folk music, he's not abandoning that either. What about German folk-songs? He sighs. "That's difficult for two reasons. One is that in the 19th century a lot of folk music was composed which really was not folk music – things like 'Die Lorelei'." You can always tell, he says, if a folk-song is authentic by singing it a capella. "If the harmonic structure works, it's authentic, but if it needs filling in by an accompaniment, that means it's a fake." Which, when you think about it, is a very perceptive observation.
The other difficulty Scholl has with German folk music is political. "During the war, the whole musical world was violated, abused," he explains. "Folk-songs had a Nazi function, as Wagner had. If I were to open my mouth and start singing 'Kein Schöner Land'...." He winces, then adds with wry amusement that when he and his friends sang "Wolken Ziehen Bei Dunkler Nacht" when they were in the army, they had no idea it was a Third Reich song.
Yes, he's done his national service, and at one point dreamed of going into the German equivalent of the SAS (until bad eyesight disqualified him). And he still looks back with affection on his days as a 17-year-old conscript. "If you live with seven men for 15 months in one small room, with only a little box in a communal cupboard to call your own, you learn about yourself, and you learn about people. Who can be trusted, who shows solidarity." Useful lessons to apply to the stage.
'Wayfaring Stranger' is on DeccaReuse content