Countertenors are what one would call a rare breed among classical singers. Alfred Deller set the stage during the 1950s and ’60s in terms of popularizing the sound of a male alto who sings exclusively in his falsetto range. But it remains unusual to have the opportunity to attend an opera or recital in which an accomplished countertenor performs. It was thrilling, then, to hear German countertenor Andreas Scholl and his wife, pianist Tamar Halperin, present a recital of standard Renaissance and Baroque fare as well as 19th-century “German Lieder” Sunday afternoon at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall.
“The time of the Olympic singer — higher, louder, faster — is over,” Scholl remarked when we spoke by telephone last week. “My primary task is to communicate a composition that I have not composed myself, to serve the composer using both vocal color and rhetorical tools.”
And while Scholl’s countertenor voice lacks Olympic power, it is without question an otherworldly sound that could penetrate the atmosphere of any recital hall.
Scholl began his musical training as a boy soprano in the Kiedricher Chorbuben. His voice broke at 13, but his vocal coach encouraged him to continue singing in his “head voice,” assuring him that he possessed a special gift. Now in his mid-40s, Scholl is admired for a seamless purity of sound, pervasive in his interpretations of Bach, Purcell and Handel. On the opera stage he has sung Giulio Cesare, Bertarido (“Rodelinda”) and Arsace (“Partenope”) to great acclaim.
Sunday’s recital featured several songs drawn from a new CD recording, a collaboration between Scholl and Halperin called “Wanderer,” and the duo’s musical chemistry was evident, refined in every way.
The opus includes several selections from Brahms’ 49 Deutsche Volkslieder, including “In Stiller Nacht” (“In the Quiet Night”), with a haunting text by Jesuit poet Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld. In the complete poem, a bystander recounts seeing Jesus weep in the Garden of Gethsemane before the Passion and Crucifixion. But the two strophes that Brahms set don’t specifically outline this context. Scholl’s singing was simply hypnotic as he delivered every phrase with the utmost care.
The concert began with familiar songs by lutenists John Dowland and Thomas Campion. From the start, Halperin anticipated her husband’s desire for rubato and flexibility. And Scholl’s singing was breathtaking, especially in Purcell’s “Music for Awhile,” a piece excerpted from the 1692 Dryden and Lee play “Oedipus” that features a wealth of text painting.
With a detailed introduction, Scholl highlighted a set of three Haydn songs: “Despair,” “The Wanderer” and “Recollection.” The canzonettas are settings of poetry by Anne Hunter, a late-18th-century socialite who organized cultural salons in London while Haydn was composing and conducting his symphonies there. They are rarely performed and rather instrumental in quality.
Schubert’s songs also figured prominently throughout the afternoon: the ethereal “Du bist die Ruh” (“You Are the Peace”), the angst-filled “An Mignon” and the precursor to his unfinished symphony, “Abendstern” (“Evening Star”).
After intermission, Scholl revealed himself as the ultimate storyteller in a thoughtful grouping of songs about youth and death, which included “Der Jüngling auf dem Hügel” (“The Youth on the Hill”), a dramatic tale begun with quiet, pastoral simplicity that progressed to a black cortège accompanied by a tolling bell in the piano. Finally, we heard resplendent optimism punctuated by a triple forte chord, compliments of Halperin, that resounded seemingly forever. The final lines of text read, “And as the stars came out and the moon sailed up, he read in the stars a lofty message of hope.”
It was a recital that passed far too quickly, with just one encore. Scholl gave us a preview of his upcoming pop album with a song by Israeli musician and composer Idan Raichel. Interestingly, it was the updated text setting of “In Stiller Nacht.”