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14th March 2003
© 2003 Sydney
THE MODERN IN BAROQUE
Andreas Scholl, early music's answer to Pavarotti, is on his fourth visit to Australia. He talks to Michael Smith about his life and art.
Andreas Scholl sings with an ease and beauty that combine to produce a voice that is truly individual - an astonishing natural vocalism that has made Scholl the most popular countertenor of his day. His records top the classical charts; last year, he packed out the Royal Albert Hall, London, for a late-night concert, and his concert and opera schedule is full for the next two years. He is achieving for J.S Bach, Handel and Vivaldi what Luciano Pavarotti has done for Puccini and Verdi.
Scholl is on his first national Australian tour, having confined his three previous visits to Sydney, where, three years ago, he made a recording of Vivaldi with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, with which he has formed a special relationship. Last week, I talked with Scholl at his Sydney hotel. Unlike Pavarotti, who travels with a phalanx-like entourage and grants audiences rather than gives interviews, there is just Scholl. He sits in the lobby coffee shop, looking like a keen tourist ready to start his day, leaning forward out of his chair, talking at length about his life and art. If he has said the same thing before, and no doubt he has, then he has the ability to make you believe you are the first to hear it. The same goes for his singing.
The power of his popularity is such that he convinced his recording company, Decca, to make the Vivaldi album in Australia with a then-untried ensemble. "I said if they wanted something special between me and the orchestra, I needed to go to Australia. They must have thought, `Here is an artist who wants a cheap holiday'. But their support was incredible," he says. The result, he thinks, was exactly as he wanted it. "In every moment, I hear what we wanted to achieve. No compromises. We were all so attuned."
His speaking voice, low and quiet, is the very opposite of his singing voice, which relies on a falsetto sound that can, with some countertenors, sound forced and ungainly. Scholl's singing goes back to his childhood and the German choral tradition. In 1974, when he was seven, he began his musical training with the Kiedricher Chorbuben, Germany's second-oldest choir. When his voice broke, at 13, he found he could still sing soprano, which modified into the countertenor range. At 19, he studied at the Schola Cantorum, Basel, where he now teaches. In 1993, Scholl made his professional debut in Paris, standing in for his own teacher, the Belgian countertenor René Jacobs. By the late '90s he was a star.
Scholl says he owes everything to his choral background that meant he entered professional life on a different basis from someone who starts cold at 19 or so.
"A different ego develops. It's something organic," he says. "The artistry turns into something very natural, and that's what the audience responds to. If you start in your late teens you can get confused, believing you have created your own voice. A lot of male colleagues who started in the boys' choir, we're a brotherhood; we tell the same stories. It's a very healthy way of keeping in touch with music. We did it with great joy, never feeling it was an obligation.
"My girlfriend, an opera singer, asks me if I remember something special in the choir. I will never forget singing the final chorus of Bach's St John Passion: `Hail, Jesus Christ, listen to me, I want to praise you eternally'. I was so enthusiastic: this is why I sing. In those few words, you perceived the Passion as a journey which brought us to this final reflection on what we have seen and heard. As a 10-year-old boy I would not have been able to talk about it the way I do now, but I knew exactly."
The countertenor, says Scholl, has a dilemma with the music he mostly sings. "It was never intended for our time. When Handel or Vivaldi wrote their music they didn't think in the 21st century a singer would fly into a country they didn't even know existed. This is basically what we have to decide: do we present some museum-like piece, put it behind glass? Or do we make sense of the story, the words, the emotions, and how they relate to our lives? The great thing about good art is how it still speaks to us ... The art of the musician today is not to re-create it exactly as it has been - that is the tendency of the historic movement - but to move an audience by convincing them it is new music."
One of the most difficult pieces Scholl sings is the countertenor aria Erbarme Dich (Have mercy) from Bach's St Matthew Passion. "You feel like a dwarf in the universe," he says. "Before you can sing it, you have to speak the words hundreds of times to get their sense; just sing it, you miss the point. I am somebody different when I sing this. It is so important to know what your role is at this moment: me or the music?"
Scholl is not entirely embedded in the baroque. He wishes there were more new pieces for countertenors that were friendlier to the voice, instead of using just the extremities of his range. A composer friend is writing a Stabat Mater setting for him, and Scholl is interested in learning a work by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. He also has a great interest in pop music with a few songs to his credit and perhaps an album coming up. "It's the music that almost everybody listens to," he says. "We listen to a tiny specialised music that should not be so specialised. There was a time when people really went to operas. When Caruso died, people put their gramophones out on the streets of New York and played them. In Germany there is a terrible distinction between serious and entertainment music. Who invented that? I drive and listen to a song and it lifts my spirits; this three-minute piece fulfilled its purpose and one should not expect more of it. Opera takes more than three minutes. Its purpose is different, more to educate and to move the human spirit, which can also happen in a rock concert. There's no question that Bach is a better composer than Sting, but that's not the question we should pose. When Frank Sinatra died, my singing teacher said this was one of the voices of the century; his timing, his phrasing. He's right. Sinatra might not have been a good opera singer, but Cecilia Bartoli is not a good pop singer, either."