China Third Shanghai Baroque Festival – Dowland, Handel, Folk Songs: Andreas Scholl (countertenor), Edin Karamazov (lute), Shanghai Symphony Hall-Chamber Hall, Shanghai, 18.12.2016. (RP)
Dowland – ‘Behold a wonder here’; ‘My sweetest Lesbia’, ‘let us live and love’; ‘Come away, come sweet love’; ‘I saw my Lady weep’; ‘In darkness let me dwell’; ‘Time stands still’; ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’; ‘Say, love if ever thou didst find’; ‘Now, O now I needs must part’
Handel – Nel dolce tempo HWV135
Folk songs – ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’; ‘I am a poor wayfaring stranger’; ‘O Waly’; ‘I will give my love an apple’; ‘The wife of Usher’s Well’; ‘Lord Rendall’
Master miniaturists are rare in any art form. Among singers, there are a select few who can etch songs with voices of crystalline purity, refined musicianship, and exquisite sensitivity to text. The German countertenor Andreas Scholl is such a singer. I am always loathe to make comparisons and revisit the past, but I will. Listening to Scholl brought back cherished memories of the legendary Dutch soprano Ely Ameling and her American contemporary Benita Valente, whose artistry can be summed up in a song that both sang, Hugo Wolf’s ‘Auch kleine Dinge’ (Even small things). One measure of these artists’ impact is the stillness they impart. Seldom will you encounter such quietude in a concert hall as there was during Scholl’s recital with his frequent performing partner, Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov, in Shanghai.
The songs of the English Renaissance composer John Dowland are core to the repertoire of countertenors and lutenists alike, their melancholy moods well-suited to Scholl’s own musical sensibilities. ’Come away, come sweet love’ may be Dowland’s best-known song. ‘To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die’ appears somewhat as a refrain throughout it with slightly different words. Each time that musical line reappeared, it was a spontaneous, yet a totally distinct expression of the lover’s fervor and frustration. Most profound was the final utterance of ‘In darkness let me dwell’ as both voice and lute faded into a bottomless well of despair.
Scholl has delved deep into the music of Handel to great acclaim, and his performance of the cantata Nel dolce tempo was evidence of his mastery of the style. Most likely composed while Handel was in Italy in 1708, the cantata is typical of the genre, scored for solo voice with the accompaniment performed by a single instrument. This was lighter fare, with four graceful airs expressing the sweet torments of love. Scholl’s sense of line, long, extended phrases that hung in midair, and quicksilver dynamic changes were simplicity incarnate; he sings as naturally as he draws breath.
Apparently Karamazov was not permitted to travel with two instruments, and so his guitar did not make the trip. The songs of Cuban composer Leo Brouwer (b.1939) listed in the program were not suited for lute accompaniment, so additional folk songs were substituted. Three of Brouwer’s folksong arrangements were performed as planned, each with a fascinating introduction that eased seamlessly into the melody. In announcing the change of program, Scholl said that the British/Appalachian folk song ’The wife of Usher’s Well’ was his favorite. This ballad tells of a mother who sends her three sons away, only to learn of their deaths shortly afterwards, and their return to her in bittersweet visions. Scholl sang it with searing intensity. Bravos rang out as its final notes sounded.
Karamazov performed three solo improvisations interspersed amongst the songs. The first was melodically and harmonically more adventuresome than the Dowland songs which came before and after, but unfortunately was relegated to mere background music as late comers took an inordinate of time to find their seats. (Few theaters have seats as clearly marked as these are.) The second had strains associated with New Age or World Music. The final one started with a Bach-like melody, and gave the best measure of his considerable skills as a solo performer. By any measure, he was Scholl’s musical peer.
There was one encore, Bach’s ‘Jesus bleibet meine Freude, meines Herzens Trost und Saft’ (Jesu, Joy of man’s desiring).