thu 07/07/2022

Scholl, Jaroussky, Ensemble Artaserse, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Scholl, Jaroussky, Ensemble Artaserse, Barbican

Scholl, Jaroussky, Ensemble Artaserse, Barbican

Two countertenors turn rivalry into musical romance

The egos and rivalries of the great castrati – of Senesino, Carestini, Farinelli – are legendary. Too few arias, too unheroic a role, or just too little virtuosity (Handel’s beautiful “Verdi prati” was almost lost to us when Senesino rejected its simplicity) were all cause enough for a tantrum. How times have changed. Collaborating for their new Purcell project, superstar countertenors Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky are trading jealousy for duets, and proving that you really can never have too much of a good thing.

Of all the emotions displayed on the Barbican stage last night, bravery was surely the dominant. For a German and a French singer to debut a programme of some of England’s most treasured national music on a London stage takes serious guts. The notorious difficulty of English as a singing language, the prowess of our own homegrown countertenors and the challenges inherent to Purcell’s deceptively simple music are enough to daunt anyone. Add the unavoidable element of comparison, of singing alongside a vastly successful colleague, and you have a fairly heroic task.

Responsible for some of the finest duet writing of the day, Purcell’s repertoire offers the full gamut of emotions and technical demands. At the celebratory end we have of course “Sound the trumpet”, whose florid, teasing exchange of phrases sat well for both voices, Jaroussky’s ringing soprano set off by the darker colours of Scholl’s alto. Though other favourites – “My dearest, my fairest”, “Hark! Hark, each tree” – offered some lovely touches of interaction and sustained the blended sound, it was “In vain the am’rous flute” from the composer’s Hail! Bright Cecilia that stole the show.

Matching its two countertenors with two recorders, the music’s solo lines undulate and coil amongst one another in quite the most overtly sexual encounter of Baroque music (only excepting perhaps Poppea and Nerone’s “Pur ti miro” from Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea). Giving it all the languor they could muster, both Scholl and Jaroussky swooned and arched their phrases with gorgeous control. Lacking only was the original text – “to inspire wanton heat and loose desire” – rather than the rather PG alternative we were offered instead.

Comparisons are of course odious (or “odorous”, according to Shakespeare) and I’d love to say that both singers emerged equally well from the evening, but it sadly wasn’t the case. In a programme that balanced duets with solos, as well as instrumental movements from Jaroussky’s Ensemble Artaserse, it quickly became evident that Scholl was falling behind.

The merits of Scholl as a recording artist are legion. His distinctive purity of tone, musical sensitivity and control are supreme, and that’s before you get to his dramatic abilities. Yet every time I encounter him in the concert hall I find myself questioning the viability of his voice for live performance. His projection is a real issue – particularly in a hall the size of the Barbican – and with a persistent low-lying mist hovering around his tone, anything greater than a single lute and viola da gamba all but obliterates his middle register. There was a noticeable progression as the concert continued from the consumptive fragility of the opening (the least “proud” songster imaginable) to a delicate but commanding beauty for “Sweeter than roses” and “O solitude”, but unless vocal issues were being well disguised there seems little excuse for an hour’s onstage warm-up.

philippe_jaroussky01When Scholl is good however, he is very, very good, and the slinking, shifting, off-the-cuff lyricism of “Sweeter than roses” was almost enough to induce first-half amnesia. This musical intimacy, a casual melodic stroll with a single lute and continuo, is where Scholl shines, his musicality allowed full release without the issues of projection or competition with an orchestra.

Jaroussky’s soprano countertenor balances its sweetness with a real kick of power, and came into its own in the freedom of the solo repertoire. Perhaps owing to his higher tessitura it was Jaroussky (pictured right) who got most of the composer's big hits, including a poised (if slightly Francophile) “Fairest Isle” and “O let me weep” from The Fairy Queen. Capable of some astonishing moments of music – a throwaway ornament, a relentlessly sustained suspension sequence – Jaroussky has yet to stitch these all absolutely together. In “Evening Hymn”, however, he came very close. The endless phrases of exaltation in the “Hallelujah” section, with their cheeky modal moments, were all joy and line, barely related to the achingly inward contemplation of the opening.

With stylish support from a rather slimline incarnation of Ensemble Artaserse, the evening was beautifully designed, its architecture allowing for sets of numbers to run attacca, avoiding the fuss and fumble of too many interruptions and creating a miniature narrative within each group. All this and one countertenor would have been good; with two it was supreme, turning rivalry into musical romance.

Comments

I was fortunate enough to be sitting only a little more than 10 foot away from Scholl and Jaroussky last night. Wonderful performances by both. There is no doubt in my mind that Scholl did in fact have 'vocal issues' - which were being well disguised. He was having to clear his throat at the end of most phrases. As you say, the performances taken as a whole were superb. But on balance, Scholl's mastery shone through for me.

I was there too. They were superb. Scholl's weaker tone more than compensated for by his immense musicality and emotional maturity. I did wonder if he was a bit ill -- the regular coughs. It felt like he had to hold back a bit on power in order to preserve the clear tone and expressiveness. He is still the greatest; Jaroussky was as impressive as I have ever heard him, but has not yet Scholl's passion. QUESTION: What was Scholl's first encore?? It was stunningly wonderful.

Scholl's encore from King Arthur: COLD GENIUS What power art thou, who from below Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow From beds of everlasting snow? See'st thou not how stiff and wondrous old, Far unfit to bear the bitter cold, I can scarcely move or draw my breath? Let me, let me freeze again to death. Follow the link for full lyrics: http://www.impresario.ch/libretto/libpurkin_e.htm

Giusto ciel, would I have fantasies about those two as an item...the perfect couple, I'd have thought.

We were there. It was a fabulous concert. It got better and better as it went along. I thought Scholl was a little weaker when they kicked off, but he grew into the evening, and the finale (the encore, or encores) was fantastic. Scholl's encore of the King Arthur, with fantastic edgy string playing likeable to Vivaldi's "Winter" decades later, was superb, and the rapour the two singers had with each other and (in the second half and encore) with the audience were excellent. I was ready to fall asleep to languid Purcell lamentations in the first half, but instead I was blown away by their musicality and lyrical ability. The encore is worth a cd in its own right. They were awesome.

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