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Senesino: Farinelli’s Greatest Rival, Handel’s Muse’:  Andreas Scholl, Accademia Bizantina, 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.

The 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.

According 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.

Here’s 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 Lotti’sDiscordi 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.

The 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.

There 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’sStelle Ingrate’ and Handel’s ‘Aure, deh 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. 



Melanie Eskenazi 


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)