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Music review: Andreas Scholl with the English Concert at Disney

October 12, 2011 |  2:50 pm

Andreas Scholl
Andreas Scholl is a countertenor and a modern man. Appearing as soloist with the English Concert, a period instrument ensemble, at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night in a mostly Purcell program, Scholl wore a contemporary dark suit, open-neck black shirt and no leather (no belt and black sneakers). He had a bottle of water at his side. The early music band and its music director, Harry Bicket, stuck with the traditional white tie and tails regimen. 

Scholl sang with the refinement and intensity for which he is known. Phrases were perfectly shaped. His tone was pure. Scholl is German whereas Purcell’s songs are set to English poetry from centuries past. For once at a concert presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, printed texts were provided and the lights kept on. But this time they weren’t needed. Accents and annunciation were as they should be: Each word could be understood and felt. Music of great character was delivered with great character but without great or unneeded exaggeration.

Scholl is a model singer. And that makes him even more confusing than most countertenors.

Men who sing high, in a woman’s range (and those rare contraltos with manly, deep chest tones) are normally valued for being non-normative. They represent nature’s extremes and thus are ideal for presenting emotional extremes and especially for expressing extreme discomfort.

Scholl doesn’t do that, although he is not beyond throwing in a little more gender confusion than absolutely necessary. He sang Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s opera, “Dido and Aeneas” with exquisite finesse, but here his character was in drag and he was not, and I didn’t know which to believe.

The program consisted mainly of excerpts from Purcell’s two best known dramas with music -- “King Arthur” and “The Fairy Queen.” Songs and airs were mixed with instrumental numbers. Scholl also sang three additional Purcell airs, including the heartbreakingly beautiful “Music for a While” and “And Evening Hymn.”

The “Cold Song” from “King Arthur” turns shivering into proto-Minimalist astonishment, and Scholl made it seem remarkably of the moment, as if something by Michael Nyman for a Peter Greenaway film. I’ve long thought “Fairest Isle,” also from “King Arthur,” would make the greatest national anthem any country could ever hope for. Scholl, precise and fervent in his performance, would be my advocate.

English ConcertThe English Concert, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, is an early-music ensemble with a history. And, odd as it may seem for early music specialization intent on turning the clock back, it has evolved. Most notable is the lack of self-consciousness in bringing old sounds into the new environments.

Compromising with modern settings comes naturally. Bicket conducted from either a harpsichord or a small portable organ. To make that work, the harpsichord rested on top of the organ in a peculiar makeshift arrangement with the help of modern carpentry. Meanwhile a Baroque cello, which does not have a pin, was positioned on a padded modern piano bench, which probably absorbed too much of its sound.

This is music for a smaller room than a 2,000-plus hall, but the English Concert is such a crack 12-member band of viols, recorders, ancient oboes and valveless trumpets that it had fewer problems than might be expected capturing the nuances, colors, pageantry and sweet kisses of Purcell. Bicket’s crisp and exacting conducting has grown in character since the English Concert’s last Disney appearance three seasons ago. And he also added short instrumental numbers by Heinrich Biber and Georg Muffat, in which tricky harmonic deceptions were conveyed with flair.

But the night belonged to Purcell’s and Scholl’s more exquisite deceptions of nature.

RELATED:

Review: David Daniels with the English Concert

Opera review: Peter Sellars stages Handel's 'Hercules' in Chicago

 Music Review   Henry Purcell, for better and for worse

-- Mark Swed

Photos: above, Andreas Scholl; below, The English Concert conducted by Henry Bicket at Walt Disney Concert Hall Tuesday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

 

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