Andreas Scholl & Tamar Halperin
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. 3 January 2016
For years now Andreas Scholl has had the ability to fill stadia and opera houses, although his singing usually seems more suited to smaller spaces. He is often derided by opera critics for the comparatively low volume of his voice, although I often think that he has it about right, and the others sing too loudly, at considerable cost to their voices. But in the compact environment of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (the Shakespeare Globe’s reconstruction of a Jacobean theatre), he had no fear of being thought too quiet.
In theory, the Wanamaker Playhouse acoustics should not work for classical music, with so much wood, a relatively small volume, and the audience themselves (who absorb a lot of sound) making up a larger proportion of the volume than in a ‘normal’ concert hall. But although the acoustic is relatively dry, there is sufficient acoustic bloom within the space to make their series of Concerts by Candlelight one of the highlights of London’s recent music scene. Since they started there has, not surprisingly, been an emphasis on early music which, apart from the obvious scenic possibilities, works very well in the space.
It might seem strange to state, when reviewing a singer who has walked on musical water for many years, but Andreas Scholl does seem to be improving and developing as time goes by. His younger rather awkwardly stiff stage manner has long gone, and his early tendency to rely on the extraordinary beauty of his voice to portray the text has been replaced by him taking far more ownership of the words. This was very evident in this recital of songs from Elizabethan composers and Purcell – a bit of a mixed bag of pieces with rather more of a melancholic feel than the ‘Exquisite Love’ implied by the title. Examples of Scholl’s understanding of the text include the subtle ways that he voiced the repeated refrain “let go” in Thomas Campion’s I care not for these ladies. As he had done before in concerts like this, he finished the first half with Purcell’s Man is for the woman made, singing in a baritone voice and jovially managing to get the audience to sing the refrain. He took a while to settle in; the first couple of pieces suffering from excessive vibrato which thankfully subsided as the afternoon progressed, eventually becoming just one expressive device to be occasionally applied. He also seemed to be suffering from a repetitive frog in his throat, but managed to clear his throat without interrupting the musical flow.
I am not sure if the harpsichord accompaniments by Tamar Halperin (aka Mrs Scholl) were improvised continuo realisations from the usual single bass line, or carefully prepared scores. They sounded too professional to be the former, but too improvisatory to be the latter – resulting in a clever compromise between spontaneity and preparation. The Elizabethan pieces would originally have been accompanied by a lute or possibly virginals, the Purcell probably with a larger continuo group including lute and cello. But the solo harpsichord accompaniment worked well, not least in reducing the affect of the 100-year or so gap between Purcell and the Elizabethans. I particularly liked the link passages between pieces, a good way of preventing unwanted applause, but also an effective way of making more sense of a programme of some 19 separate pieces. Tamar Halperin’s solo contributions included two Purcell Suites and an impressive performance of William Byrd’s extended Fantasia in A minor, from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, played with freshness and rhythmic freedom. It says something for the professionalism of musicians like this that they can perform to such high standards immediately after the Christmas break, and with a tiny baby in tow.