Classical: Andreas Scholl, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Any foreigner unlucky enough to face a David Blunkett test in English enunciation could do worse than listen to Andreas Scholl. English – all diphthongs and different sounds for identical letters – is a notoriously difficult language for singers; witness Fischer-Dieskau, Carreras or Domingo.

Does any etranger intone English as beautifully, or perceptively, or accurately, as Andreas Scholl? Our own Stephen Varcoe has produced a valuable book, Sing English Song, outlining just how we shape our elusive tongue. But go and hear Scholl sing; any Kathleen Ferrier award for enunciation should go to him.

His mastery was evident – in words such as "toil", "bright", "love", "black", "soon", "smiled", "hard-hearted", even "the" – from the start of his Wigmore Hall recital, and shone forth still as he wound down with two of his most glorious items as encores: "Annie Laurie" (sheer, unadulterated beauty) and "O Waly Waly". Curiously, he apologised for the exclusive folksong content – "It's not art song" – as if six centuries of popular crossover excludes it from the corpus. Britten might have had a reply to that; indeed, it was the doubtful accompaniments to a couple of songs (modern lute pastiche) that left something to be desired. But most accompaniments, kept simple, worked well (and six lute solos from a 1620s manuscript, played by Karl-Ernst Schroeder, entranced).

This was a gorgeous recital, loveliest in the upper range ("I love the grass on where she stands", a suspended sixth left hanging in the air, from "Black is the colour of my true love's hair", or a rising cadence at "so soft, so sweet is she", with Robert Johnson the lutenist). Scholl can clothe folk with the sound of an authentic Irish air, add a melisma ("Barbara Allen") without it becoming cloying, turn a frog in the throat to achieving affect, toss off a Devon ("nevurr") or Scots burr ("broothers"), and invoke a punchy baritone to lend hilarity to ballads such as "The wraggle-taggle gypsies, o!" and "Henry Martin". If the low rockings of Ferrier's "Blow the wind southerly" caught him on the hop, as did later stanzas of Burns's "My love is like a red, red rose", Scholl's sheer mastery of his instrument leaves one agog.

It was Alfred Deller who brought him to "Annie Laurie", and to whom Scholl paid warm tribute. And it's from Deller that he could still learn. Scholl just lacks that fluted pathos, that subtle Midas touch that turns Deller to gold. Hearing Scholl and James Bowman sing Solomon in one week, one was awed by the mutual mastery, but it was Bowman who carved out a character. Scholl is one of the finest singers in the world. What he needs is duende.

Andreas Scholl's new folksong disc, 'Wayfaring Stranger', is on Decca (468 499 2)

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