Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin: "The Wanderer"
Songs by Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Brahms. Texts and translations. Decca 478 4696
A countertenor in lieder? Andreas Scholl quickly banishes the notion that the effort is a mere gimmick. His musicality and good taste are clear in every selection. His treatment of the German language is exemplary, the text emerging clearly but unemphatically. He sings this repertoire without rhetorical underlining, words and melody emerging in as direct, uncluttered a manner as conceivable. The manner is almost childlike — an impression buttressed by the voice's resemblance to a boy's treble.
Scholl has cannily assembled repertoire that benefits from his artfully simple approach. Most of the selections are strophic, with their roots in folk song; indeed, five of the selections come from Brahms's collection of Deutsche Volkslieder. The songs tend toward melancholy and introspection, an emotional territory befitting Scholl's slender instrument, and none of them call for the kind of declamatory emphasis that might overtax his vocal resources.
Nonetheless, I did not find myself entirely won over to the project. Take the opening selection, Brahms's "In stiller Nacht." The piece begins low; here Scholl sounds less like a falsettist than like a high tenor (Ian Bostridge, say),and he sustains the illusion of song as a form of heightened speech. But the song's two four-phrase strophes reach a climax in the third phrase on a tenor's high C. Scholl's sound at this point is not, of course, the chested C of a Rodolfo or a Tonio but a countertenor's falsetto, and it strikes me as more artificial and less expressive than the voce mista he uses at the beginning of the song. The problem continues through the duration of the disc. Scholl's love of the material and his unarguable insight into it cannot compensate for a sound that, because of its remove from a male speaking voice, works against the kind of intimate expression that the genre demands.
Furthermore, for all the deftness and sensitivity of his phrasing, the lack of color in Scholl's falsetto proves both an expressive handicap and an impediment to listening pleasure. The problem can be heard at its most extreme in the four short, identical strophes of Brahms's "Da unten im Tale," where Scholl cannot create the contrast in inflections needed to move the song forward. This is a voice that works well within the lush context of a Baroque orchestra, where it functions as one sound among many. But with just a piano as accompaniment (and a rather recessed one, as Decca has engineered it), it quickly reveals its coloristic shortcomings.
The disc includes a handful of Haydn songs in English — with texts by the composer's friend Anne Hunter. Here, Scholl's diction, so convincing in German, turns positively bizarre: it's impossible to follow the texts without crib sheet in hand. Scholl makes a startling interpretive choice in Schubert's "Der Tod und das Mädchen," singing Death's part in his natural voice — an attractive, if fragile, baritone. It's as if the singer were wandering out on a concert stage in shorts and a T-shirt. Tamar Halperin's accompaniment, as indicated, is as much felt as heard, but she is thoroughly in tune with Scholl's unemphatic interpretive manner and sustains the contemplative mood in two piano solos — most beautifully in Brahms's A-major Intermezzo.
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