Friday 10 June 2011

Scholl/Halperin - Purcell, Dowland, Brahms, et al., 7 June 2011

Wigmore Hall

Purcell – Music for a while, Z.583/2
Sweeter than Roses, Z.585/1
Round O, Z.T684
Dowland – Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears
I saw my lady weep
Say, love if ever thou didst find
Handel – Suite no.2 in F major, HWV 427: Adagio and Allegro
Robert Johnson – Have you seen the bright lily grow?
Thomas Campion – I care not for these ladies
Purcell – O solitude, my sweetest choice, Z.406
Man is for the woman made, Z.605/3
Haydn – The Wanderer
Piano Sonata in A major, Hob.XVI:12
Brahms – Songs from Deutsche Volkslieder, WoO333: ‘Guten Abend’, ‘All mein Gedanken’, ’Da unten im Tale,‘ ‘Es ging ein Maidlein zarte’
Anonymous – I will give my love an apple
Waly, waly
My love is like a red, red rose

Andreas Scholl (counter-tenor)
Tamar Halperin (harpsichord, piano)

Andreas Scholl’s recital possessed many virtues, not least the beauty of his voice and the intelligence of his programming. It was welcome, moreover, to be reminded that a modern counter-tenor need not rely upon the adoption of castrato operatic fireworks. Scholl sings a great deal of Handel, for instance, but did not do so here, the only Handel items being two movements from a keyboard suite. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the Brahms folksong settings – remote shores for even the most enterprising counter-tenor – that proved more impressive, though there were certainly no grounds for complaint concerning his Purcell and Dowland.

Purcell was afforded the greatest share of the programme. (Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Scholl is about to release a Purcell collection on CD.) Music for a while opened the selection, in surprisingly leisurely fashion, once harpsichordist Tamar Halperin’s ‘preluding’ was dispensed with. (That practice seemed a little forced in this context, though it did no harm.) Scholl’s timbre remained resolutely non-hooting, yet his delivery nevertheless harked back to an older generation, indeed to Alfred Deller himself. There was nothing remotely feminine about this performance, unlike those of some more operatically-inclined counter-tenors. Word-painting on the word ‘drop’ was a joy: one could almost see those snakes drop from Alecto’s head. The swagger imparted to the second stanza of Sweeter than roses was finely judged too. Halperin, though a reticent accompanist, delivered the ensuing harpsichord rondeau – the same as that from the Abdelazer music – with judicious rubato.

Doubts set in a little, however, when it came to the Dowland songs: not with respect to Scholl, but rather with respect to use of the harpsichord. A somewhat clattering instrument did the music’s intimacy no favours. There is no reason that Dowland should be confined to the lute, though of course that instrument is his most obvious home, yet I could not help thinking that a yielding piano would have done a better job than that on offer. Halperin’s delivery of the two movements from Handel’s F major suite again made this listener, at least, long for the instrument on which Sviatoslav Richter so memorably performed the music; it might be unreasonable to expect such personality from every player who tackles such repertoire, but a little more inspiration would not have gone amiss. This was a prosaic performance. Before that, however, Scholl had delivered just the right sense of inevitable melancholia in the first two Dowland songs, that despite a word-centred approach which perhaps short-changed the composer’s musical inspiration. Scholl’s Dowland stood as heir to the troubadours. A change of mood was undeniable, however, for Say, Love, if ever thou didst find, which brought to mind the lighter fancies of the Elizabethan madrigalists. The audience – which appeared to comprise a good few fans – delighted in the crude humour of Robert Johnson’s Have you seen the bright lily grow? and in Scholl’s female impersonation for the ‘let go’ refrains of Campion’s I care not for these ladies (‘who must be woo’d and pray’d’). Purcell’s Man is for the woman made, which rounded off the first half, was turned by Scholl as tenor into an exercise in audience participation: in spirit perhaps more church than theatre, but neither performers nor audience seemed to mind.

It was a joy to hear three of Haydn’s English canzonettas, music which appears far too infrequently in recitals given by any vocal type. Halperin, who had now switched to the piano, provided delicate support, but her performance, here and in much of the early sonata that followed, lacked forward impetus, sounding as if it were read from bar to bar. Scholl, however, captured well the mood midway between song and wistful aria. The Wanderer moved into darker, more Romantic territory, preparing the way for Brahms, and Halperin offered greater continuity in her contribution, with its almost fantasia-like quality. Haydn’s ravishing Neapolitan harmony could not fail to move. The A major sonata’s final movement suffered from a stop-start approach and its minuet sounded unduly strident. There were nevertheless aspects to enjoy, such as a poised, if hardly profound, reading of the opening Andante and a wonderfully mysterious trio to the minuet, at which point the pianist seemed suddenly quite in touch with the composer’s spirit.

I should never have thought of Scholl as an obvious exponent of Brahms’s folksong settings, but here he proved impressive indeed. Guten Abend offered a melancholy to rival Dowland’s, whilst Brahms’s involved piano writing seemed also to capture Halperin’s imagination. Her performance may have been clear rather than probing, but one was certainly able to savour the composer’s extraordinary writing, which seems to open out a window into the world of the late piano pieces. Da unten im Tale was delivered by Scholl with moving sincerity, art concealing art, whilst Es ging ein Maidlein zarte emerged as a cousin to, or perhaps descendant of, Der Tod und das Mädchen, looking back to folk origins as well as forward to later Brahms. Once again, however, Halperin’s reticence detracted somewhat from the overall performance. As for the closing English and Scottish folksongs, an unaccompanied rendition would have been preferable to Halperin’s own easy-listening doodlings: hardly Britten, let alone Brahms. The tessitura of My love is like a red, red rose sounded a little uncomfortable for Scholl, but perhaps this was mostly on account of the ease with which he had despatched the rest of the programme.