Andreas Scholl on high standards in The Age
For higher standards
Robin Usher, The Age
March 8, 2011
Singer Andreas Scholl says it is not good enough for countertenors today to lack perfect intonation and rely solely on pitch.
THE German singer Andreas Scholl is the world’s most famous countertenor. He sells out concerts and wins awards for his top-selling recordings, ensuring the vocal style is an accepted part of today’s recital and operatic programming.
But that doesn’t mean he is happy about the state of the art form, even though a big part of the problem is its increasing popularity.
”It’s considered exotic by choirmasters in Europe who want to do a concert of a Bach Passion with baroque instruments and need a countertenor,” he says.
”But all the young countertenor has to do is to sing high. It doesn’t particularly matter how good he is because he is not expected to have perfect intonation.”
Scholl found during classes he conducts in Basel, where he first went to study after leaving Germany 15 years ago, that young countertenors have a ”healthy self-confidence” because they can earn money with their voice. But he says they lack the technical mastery that singers of other styles are expected to have.
He insists this should not be tolerated. ”In the development of early music in the ’70s and ’80s, the violinist was sometimes scratchy and a bit out of tune, which was fine for the times,” he says.
”But such standards will not be accepted today.”
He calculates it might take another 20 years before audiences know what to expect from a countertenor, and the different styles possible. ”I think we are about halfway there.”
The singer is preparing for his third tour of Australia with Musica Viva, which begins at the Melbourne Recital Centre tonight, accompanied by two Australian musicians and his girlfriend, Israeli-born harpsichordist Tamar Halperin.
He first came to Australia in 1998 to perform at the Sydney Festival with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and enjoyed it so much he returned two years later to record an all-Vivaldi disc with the ABO.
That’s when he met lutenist Tommie Andersson, although he does not know Daniel Yeadon, his tour’s cellist and viola da gamba player.
”I know how good baroque musicians are in Australia, so I have no doubts about the standard of the playing,” he says.
Scholl is a committed recitalist, travelling the world to perform on concert stages. Every second year, he concentrates on live opera bookings.
”A regular life is not possible because I have to make bookings two years ahead, so I am used to missing family celebrations.”
His program is made up of music by two of his favourite composers, Purcell and Handel. He has just completed his first Purcell recording, O Solitude, with Accademia Bizantina even though he has been performing Purcell’s songs since he was a student. ”English composers such as Purcell and Dowland are daily bread for a countertenor,” he says.
The recording includes the aria Dido’s Lament, usually performed by a soprano but described by one English critic as ”extraordinarily haunting”.
Scholl says today’s countertenor repertoire includes historically correct songs from baroque operas, as well as those written for castrati. ”It was an artificial voice that is no longer possible today,” he says. ”But the aim of the composer was to have the big hero transcend the social limitations about what men and women can do.”
He says the role of Julius Caesar in Handel’s opera, now sung by a countertenor, requires a supernatural voice because the role is expressing all of humanity’s potential.
The increasing popularity of the roles means audiences’ expectations continue to rise. ”A whole generation of countertenors filled opera halls with sound, but drama is not measured in decibels,” he says. ”The voice’s colours needed to express the drama do not require a huge sound all the time.”
This is leading young singers to try to discover composers’ original ideas, rather than just deliver what has become the standard sound. ”Countertenors now are able to give an informed interpretation which means that interpretations are changing, depending on the singer’s own conclusions.”
Andreas Scholl will perform songs by Purcell and Handel at the Melbourne Recital Centre tonight and Saturday.