If I could marry a song, it would probably be one by Henry Purcell. There are so many favorites from which to choose, and they are all so appealing – at times unabashedly erotic, at other times ravishing in their melancholy, short and perky, intellectual, or flashy with substance. I want to relish every one of them. Even the unfamiliar ones boast a clever line of text or a sudden flourish of coloratura that make me sneak a sideways glance when I should be focusing on the score in hand. This Purcell guy satisfies the singer who is looking for the variety of Schubert’s lieder and the nuanced language of Debussy’s mélodies, combined with Verdi’s masterful writing for the human voice.
I am also a huge fan of Andreas Scholl. He is the rarely seen Complete Singer. He always delivers beautiful tone, prepares the music like a scholar, and demonstrates a sense of show business in his stage performances and recordings. Arias for Senesino (Decca, 2005), his English lute song recital (Harmonia Mundi, 1996), and his masterful Deutsche Barocklieder (Harmonia Mundi, 1995) are essential documents of his output, showing the range of a full-fledged opera singer who can also execute the minutiae. He is a gentle giant. Scholl has collaborated with the best conductors and period ensembles, including Accademia Bizantina, which accompanied him on Arias for Senesino and a few other recent releases. Accademia Bizantina specializes in music of the Italian baroque and proudly wears the badge of the Italian approach: They are passionate, percussive, and sometimes inappropriately loud – but always stylish. Their generous size qualifies them as an orchestra, but they behave like a chamber ensemble. Accademia Bizantina is the ideal band for a Venetian baroque opera or a Vivaldi concerto (and their press photos look like they were taken for Vogue Italia).
The late 2010 release O Solitude – Songs and Arias by Henry Purcell was poised to be my new international object of love: The greatest English composer of his time (not adverse to employing Italian operatic style and French dance rhythms), performed by today’s leading German countertenor and a sexy Italian band. As I tore through the first listening of this disc, however, I was not sated. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Did I mistake this shiny plastic disc for a perfect harmonious sphere? I did enjoy myself – I can adore something and still be critical of it – but I am trying to understand why it was not as satisfying as I had hoped it would be.
The music itself is top shelf Purcell: a nice sample of the theater songs and odes, instrumental dance music, a little flirtation with opera, and a chaste sampling of the Harmonia Sacra. Accademia Bizantina, while sometimes too robust and superfluous in their choice of instrumentation, nevertheless plays brilliantly throughout. Christoph Dumaux’s contribution is annoying in “Sound the Trumpet” (his voice too spicy for a queen’s ode), but redeemed in a second duet “O dive custos,” his voice just operatic enough for a queen’s elegy.
Against the rich texture of the Accademia Bizantina, Scholl’s squeaky clean tone comes off as instrumental and blanche. Is this his choice, or is his timbre merely overwhelmed in songs that are typically accompanied by a single continuo instrument? Is his strategy to be so clean and pure (more pointed than the oboe) that his sound emerges as inhuman from the scintillating violins and earthy winds? I have faith in Scholl as a non-egotistical, uncompromising artist. So, shall I trust his scholarship and accept his choices as a deliberate effort to put the composer first?
There are some tracks that fit like a glove. Not coincidentally, one Purcell specified for countertenor “Here the deities approve” from the Ode Welcome to all the Pleasures is a perfect track on this recording, Scholl sounding like a disembodied voice from heaven urging the band to be inspired by his blessing. Their postlude is indeed inspired, pregnant with intent. “Music for a while” and “An Evening Hymn” are also gems in this program. Scholl brings a special, intimate quality to these masterpieces, suggesting that he has been performing them throughout his career of recitals.
Maybe the listed program should have alerted me to a misstep from this great artist. There are some songs essayed by Scholl that were specifically written with a different voice type in mind. Again, I think of Scholl as a musician with enough integrity to understand that reassigning the vocal line to fit his own contralto fundamentally changes the character of the music. Singing the “Cold Genius” song (“What Power Art Thou” from King Arthur) up an octave distorts the relationship of the bass line to the melody. I expect to hear a muddied overtone series resulting from the major 2nd clashes. Up the octave (as 9ths), those sonorities sound far too tidy. This is a shame, as Accademia Bizantina works overtime – using borderline extended techniques – to make their strings sound like the frozen human chorus. For my taste, no matter how well the piece is sung, this octave swap is akin to a tenor singing Handel’s Ombra mai fu or a precocious adolescent – a reality show runner-up – singing Nessun dorma.
The brief and effective “One charming night” from The Night Sequence of The Fairy Queen is originally scored for tenor or haute-contre, written in the trickiest part of the voice, around the upper F passaggio. It is a song that dances around the topic of sex without actually naming it. Scholl singing this song in the original key completely removes the risk from the vocal line, and as a result nullifies Purcell’s clever setting. We are, however, treated to a few quick dips into Scholl’s modal chest voice; such a gracefully smoothed over break.
Transposing a piece by Purcell is an equally tricky proposition, as he incorporates the inherent strengths and weakness of the voice into his melodic affects. In Scholl’s rendition of Dido’s Lament, the climactic “Remember me!” phrase lands squarely on the top D of his range. This may be a similar amount of tension for an alto as the original high G is for a soprano, but it does not sound like a passaggio note in Scholl’s masterful technique. This renders the phrase cool as opposed to desperate. He probably could have sung it in E minor or F minor to achieve that grinding quality. What could have been a great party trick – a true camp moment on this album – is sadly a wasted opportunity.
A few minor quibbles regarding missed r’s in words like harp and shore and open vowels like uh and ah that sound too similar in Scholl’s straight tone make me feel like the diction police. I probably would not notice the same thing in a language other than my native one. The great minuet for Venus from King Arthur, “Fairest isle,” suffers from a lack of rhetoric (something Scholl brings in spades to his native language recording Deutsche Barocklieder – listen to this recording of ”Jetzund kömpt die Nacht herbey” from that album). In strophic songs, connecting certain phrases differently in the second verse is a small detail that does not get missed by a singer like Ellen Hargis, but here does elude Mr. Scholl.
Accademia Bizantina brings so much energy to this program that you will be glad to have all the Chaconnes and Passacaglias that fill out the album. More often than not, they are the warmth, the color, the grit, (and the sex), that is missing from the vocal tracks.
Fans of Scholl already own this disc. I recommend it with reservations. For better examples of his artistry, check out the recordings listed above. For improved versions of some of the same music on this recording, check out Carolyn Sampson and Elizabeth Kenney’s 2007 release Victorious Love. But get this one anyway for Accademia Bizantina and sing along, asking Belinda for her hand.