Andreas Scholl: The Renaissance Muse, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

As foreplay to Valentine's Day, this somewhat contrived confection was at least timely. But as a way of melding Renaissance song and poetry so that one might complement and illuminate the other, it failed on almost every count to rise to the occasion.

It is a sign of the times that we are constantly seeking new ways of packaging and selling art, so we might illustrate that which is best left to the imagination. It could be argued that an artist like Andreas Scholl has more reason than most to do so: the counter-tenor's repertoire is trickier to programme with imagination and panache - and that was plainly the thinking here. Besides, he had a new album of Renaissance lute songs (A Musical Banquet) to sell, and where there's a new album there's invariably an "event" to go with it.

This one was launched in New York and is credited to the Broadway stage director Mark Lamos. But it was Scholl's idea to juxtapose poetry and song in such a way as to lend dramatic context to the latter. Why? These songs of love and pain and the whole damn thing (many by the great English practitioner John Dowland) are tiny dramatic chronicles in themselves. They tell us stories; they move us with their wit, pathos and candour. And they are entirely self-sufficient.

When Scholl sings them, the unaffected beauty of his timbre is sufficient to transports us utterly. We have no need of a stage "set", of carpets, cushions and books of verse. And we have no need of an "addressee". To make flesh of the object of our poet's desires, affections and scorn is to dictate how we see her. Pretty though the American actress Laila Robins is, to see her is to rob us of the mystery. And even if her verse-speaking was better (and less transatlantic) it would not complement - indeed, it too often intrudes upon - the mood of the songs.

When Scholl sang Dowland's "In Darkness Let Me Dwell", any light was inappropriate. The keening distress of the vocal line, broken only once by "hellish, jarring sounds", was solitude incarnate. At the close we wanted, needed, a moment or two of total silence and darkness. But in burst our feminine muse to shatter the atmosphere with more flouncing fancy. Something about nymphs and shepherds, I believe.

So you'll have gathered that Scholl, with his wonderful lutanist and guitarist Crawford Young, would more than have sufficed. These songs don't make for huge variations in tone, but the wonderful thing about Scholl's voice is that it's a true and exquisite male alto; not the more plumped-up womanly variety of counter-tenor.

There was humour, too, and the last number almost made the journey to the Barbican worthwhile. The sad tale of "Lord Randall", the jilted lovesick boy repeatedly begging his mother to make up his deathbed. What might he leave his lover? "A rope to hang herself." Now there's a thought.