Farinelli’s Greatest Rival, Handel’s Muse’: Andreas Scholl,
dir. Ottavio Dantone, Barbican Hall, 8.11.2005 (ME)
‘Senesino had a powerful, clear, equal and sweet contralto
voice, with a perfect intonation and an excellent shake.
His manner of singing was masterly and his elocution unrivalled.
Though he never loaded Adagios with too many ornaments,
yet he delivered the original and essential notes with the
utmost refinement. He sang Allegros with great fire,
and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articulate
and pleasing manner. His countenance was well adapted to
the stage, and his action was natural and noble. To these
qualities he joined a majestic figure.’ Thus Johann Quantz in 1727, writing of the ‘Castrato Superstar’ Francesco
Bernardi, known as ‘Senesino’
after the city of his birth, and the description of the
singer’s voice, technique and person could just as well
stand for those of Andreas Scholl, whose recent disc of
arias written for Senesino went
straight to the top of the classical charts.
This sold-out concert presented selections from the
recording, and despite a few glitches with balance, audibility
and the instrumental parts of the programme, it was an evening
of glorious singing.
finest moments came in the recitative and aria ‘Pompe
vane di morte!...
Dove sei, amato bene’
from ‘Rodelinda,’ hardly surprisingly
since it was here that Scholl was accompanied, for the most
part, only by the continuo, allowing his voice to make its
impact without too much of the surrounding sound which blurred
some finesse elsewhere. Obviously, a small orchestra such
as the Accademia Bizantina would be used
in an operatic performance, but it would be in the pit,
not closely surrounding the singer, and for a recital, a
‘cello, keyboard and lute would provide the ideal partners.
Here, we had an unbalanced effect, perhaps owing to lack
of rehearsal time – the orchestra, an ensemble to which
onstage reticence is clearly quite foreign, were often hovering
on the edge of drowning out the singer – the recording’s
balance between it and Scholl is ideal, but a little fine
tuning was wanted to create the right conditions on the
stage of the Barbican.
to Charles Burney, Senesino delivered
Bertarido’s music ‘with uncommon energy and passion,’ both
qualities strongly in evidence here, and Scholl’s phrasing,
pacing and shaping of the recitative was masterly, the highly
dramatic outbursts of ‘Pace al cener mio?’ delivered with a sense
of barely suppressed rage. The aria was simply stunning:
James Bowman once memorably described how an audience of
which he was a member ‘went into a trance’ after hearing
Scholl sing ‘Dove sei,’ and that
quality of sheer mesmerizing power has not been lost. Everything
one wants in virtuosic singing was here: flawless technique,
style, taste, refinement, beauty of tone – it’s all been
said before, and I have said it as often as anyone, but
you just cannot imagine singing any better than this. Scholl’s
sweet yet anguished tone at the phrase ‘amato
bene’ and his expansive phrasing at ‘Vieni
l’alma a consolar!’
were both wonderful, but his mesa di
voice on the final ‘Vieni!’
was absolutely astonishing: we critics write about such
things (crescendo followed by diminuendo on a single long
note) as though they were a naturally expected part of a
singer’s armoury, but of course they are not, or at least
not nowadays, and to hear such an example of this ornament
so finely done, made one glad to be alive, to put it frankly.
the thing, however, with Scholl: jaw – dropping as the technique
may be, it is all used in the service of the music’s
characterization – as the singer wrote, ‘…the repeated
verse is designed to reinforce the emotional meaning behind
the character’s thoughts and actions.’ So it did, and not
for the first time in the evening: ‘Cara sposa’
from Handel’s first London opera, ‘Rinaldo,’
showed a huge range of emotions in a short span, moving
effortlessly from understated fervour to towering rage,
and using the mesa di voce
at ‘pianti’ to demonstrate not only the singer’s technical prowess
but the character’s despair.
A similar sensitivity to language was displayed in
pensieri,’ with the phrase ‘all’ansio
mio cor’ beautifully balanced
between hesitation and anxiety - this was rather like hearing a precursor to
Belmonte’s ‘O, wie
ängstlich,’ but it was rather unfortunate that the violin
obbligato was too much to the fore, and that there seemed
to be some dispute as to exactly where the piece ended.
recital proper ended with one of the greatest roles Handel
wrote for Senesino, that of Julius Caesar: ‘Al lampo
dell’armi’ is a brief but striking
aria, showing the warlike aspects of Caesar’s character
- the music is breathtakingly fast, as if to echo
the sense of ‘the flash of arms,’ and when taken like this,
that is to say thrillingly, it’s hard to imagine more exciting
singing: incisive diction at ‘vendetta farà’ despite the breakneck speed, a sense of grim determination
in the vow not to be weakened by any force, and most of
all the dramatic presentation of immensely difficult music
as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
were only two encores, although I am sure the audience would
have welcomed another aria from Scholl, who sang ‘Chiudetevi,
miei lumi’ (from ‘Admeto’) with wonderful intensity and a stratospheric ascent
on the first vowel of ‘lumi’ –
a pity this was followed by an indifferent piece from the
orchestra. Indeed, I had a problem with the orchestra throughout,
but one which I have to say was clearly not shared by the
rest of the audience. In the first place, why have so much
instrumental music and only seven arias, in a concert supposedly
devoted to music written for Senesino?
I find the same problem with some of Bartoli’s
concerts, in that I could listen to her sublime sound all
night and really don’t want to have to endure fillers of
mediocre orchestral works. One might remark, ‘but the singers
need to have a breather’ – however, does, say, Julius Drake
depart from Lieder at an Ian Bostridge
recital in order to delight us with a few Impromptus? Are
Matthias Goerne’s song cycles
regularly interspersed with Eric Schnieder
displaying his interpretation of the Beethoven sonatas?
Of course not, and things should be no different in the
performance of arias or baroque music.
It would have been
wonderful to hear, for example, Albinoni’s
‘Stelle Ingrate’ and Handel’s
per pietà’ from the CD, instead
of the dubious collage of Vivaldi which opened the concert.
A great evening, nevertheless, in the presence of one of the genuinely
individual voices of our time.