Andreas Scholl sings Purcell

Andreas Scholl has clearly enjoyed putting together the items for this recording, many of them pieces he has sung for many years, others he is now delighted to add to his repertoire. In some ways, it’s surprising that he has not recorded a Purcell disc before now, because, as he explains, “one could say that together with John Dowland and Handel, his music is considered the daily bread of countertenor solo singing. In fact, when I was a student at Basel we did a version of Dido and Aeneas. I sang Purcell then and I loved it, and I have always had some Purcell songs in my recital repertoire, but I had never actually recorded it and I thought now would be a good moment.”

Henry Purcell (1659–95) bestrode his period in English music like a colossus or, as he was dubbed shortly after his early death, as Orpheus Britannicus – the British Orpheus. He moved with easy assurance between all the various genres of the time, from intimate music for the chamber to the ceremonial of the court, from the sacred realm of the Anglican Church (he was organist at Westminster Abbey) to what was the West End theatre of his day, writing music for many productions at Drury Lane. He also essayed both small-scale through-composed opera in Dido and Aeneas, and the peculiarly English form of semi-opera in works such as The Fairy Queen and King Arthur – spoken plays interspersed with vast musical interludes. In all his choral and vocal endeavours, Purcell was – and still is – especially admired for his setting of English, which follows the natural rhythms of the language while adding considerably to its eloquence through his music.

For Andreas Scholl, this rhetorical aspect is very clear. “These rules were established in the late Renaissance. Many poets and composers wrote and had disputes about the significance of music, and the balance between words and music in a song or an aria. It is easier as a performer, because the approach is clearly motivated by the words. If you know how you would speak it, or dramatise it in a play, you already have ninety percent of the clues you need to come to a solid interpretation.”

It’s also clearly a pleasure for Scholl to work again with his friends from the Accademia Bizantina. “It’s been a long collaboration, and making music with them is a joy.” He has invited, too, the French countertenor Christophe Dumaux to join him. “I always thought it would be nice to have the famous ‘Sound the trumpet’ on the recording. Christophe is a very cool guy and a great singer. We did our Met debut together, and we have also sung in stage productions in Copenhagen, Lausanne and Paris. I thought it might be fun to invite him to join me for a couple of duets.”

There’s a tribute, too, to the cult figure of Klaus Nomi (1944–83) – a unique performing artist whose highly individual creativity Scholl has come to admire very much – in the form of one of Nomi’s showpieces: the famous “Cold Song” from King Arthur. “In a way it’s a very sad story. He was one of the first victims of AIDS in the music world. He started his career in the 1970s, when he wanted to train as a tenor, but he wasn’t accepted in music academies. He worked as a baker and as an extra in the Essen Opera House. Later he left Germany to live in New York, where he did some classical music training. There he became a member of a vibrant world of eccentric artists as part of the gay music scene. He always had these wonderful costumes – some people claim that David Bowie copied Klaus Nomi’s style. He was on the verge of a huge breakthrough when he died.”

Another unusual item, for a male singer, at least, is the famous lament from Dido and Aeneas, usually the realm of the female mezzo-soprano. “Well, I know it’s a bit controversial, but if it’s the only provocative thing about my singing, then that’s not too much!” There is an underlying subtext here about people’s fascination with the high male voice. “There are still the most stupid prejudices. I even had the headline ten or fifteen years ago, ‘Man Who Sings Like a Woman’ – as if I was a circus attraction. We have certain rules in Western Europe that say that if you’re a man, these are the ways in which you have to behave. A countertenor transcends this. He looks like a guy when he walks out on stage, but when he starts singing he’s not a cliché male voice, but something that we cannot put into a drawer. That’s the attraction of countertenor singing. The high male voice is something that surprises the audience and transcends classification, and reminds people that we are primarily human.”

A particular favourite of Scholl’s is “Music for a while”. “This is one of the greatest songs ever written. Music is the message, of course. Purcell is saying to the audience, ‘don’t you worry, for the time that this singer sings my music you’re going to be alright. Your pains will be eased, and music will transport you to a different place.’ It has this hypnotic quality through the repetitive pattern, the basso ostinato, and it pulls you in. If there’s a top ten of songs ever written, ‘Music for a while’ must be in it.”

“Music for a while” comes from Purcell’s incidental music to Dryden and Lee’s tragedy Oedipus, King of Thebes, revived in 1692. Other items here, such as “Sweeter than roses”, written for Norton’s Pausanias, the Betrayer of His Country (1695), or the pieces from the semi-operas King Arthur (1691) and The Fairy Queen (1692), or his miniature through-composed opera Dido and Aeneas (certainly performed in 1689, and possibly earlier), also testify vividly to his love of the theatre and the place of music within it. But there are more private song settings, too, such as “If music be the food of love” (1691–92), one of three he made of that particular text. Rounded off with the equally striking works written for special occasions, such as the 1683 Ode for St Cecilia’s Day “Welcome to all the pleasures” and the poignant Elegy on the Death of Queen Mary (1695), and some purely instrumental items, this collection samples the huge range of expression and context Purcell could engage with. Nothing, it seems, was beyond him.

How would Scholl introduce Purcell to someone who did not know his music? “To somebody who never listens to classical music, I would say, don’t be afraid to hear this. He’s certainly not a composer who is difficult to understand. Purcell moves you as a listener on several levels. Of course, you gain more pleasure if you know about the context, but the music itself speaks a universal language. It’s not music for musicologists, it’s music for human beings.”
George Hall
9/2010