Monday, October 12, 2009

Double showcase

The crowd at Handel and Haydn's season opener on Friday had clearly come to see Andreas Scholl, the countertenor who's rarely heard in the U.S. despite an international cult. And so, frankly, had I; to my surprise, however, I was more gripped by the work of the visiting conductor, Jean Christophe Spinosi (at left) of the French group Ensemble Matheus. By this I don't mean to slight Mr. Scholl, who was often transporting. But it was Mr. Spinosi who had the charisma and chops to command a space the size of Symphony Hall.

And command it he did, from the first notes of the opening Vivaldi overture (to La fida ninfa). It usually only takes seconds to realize you're in the presence of a star, and Mr. Spinosi is indeed a star. What caught the ear immediately was his commitment to what's known as "terraced dynamics"; in the Baroque world, because the harpsichord was not capable of gradations in volume, musicians generally "terraced" their performances with abrupt changes from loud to soft. Mr. Spinosi has taken that technique and run with it; on Friday night, he sculpted the strings into a series of clean plateaux of sound. The effect went far beyond the usual "echo" trick to conjure a whole musical landscape in space, and brought a striking sense of dimension to Vivaldi's habit of repeating the same musical cells in a steadily growing build. Spinosi also conducted with infectious enthusiasm, and a light but propulsive hand; he not only drew a subtle palette of color from the orchestra, but seemed to engage with, and energize, the players physically as well. In brief, he pretty much had it all.

Meanwhile Scholl (below right) had pretty much everything, too, except the power that countertenor fans always dream of. The horrifying tradition of the castrati left behind it a kind of longing for a dream vocalist with the range of a soprano but the power of a bass - indeed, by at least some accounts, that's what the greatest of the castrati had; they were compared not to other people but to trumpets.

The modern countertenor, by way of contrast, is generally confined to a form of falsetto, or "head" voice, which can rarely match the power of "chest" voice. This is how Mr. Scholl produces his gorgeously pure tones, and at times he had trouble cutting through the background support of the period orchestra behind him. But at the same time, it must be admitted his high notes are so mysteriously involuted and self-contained that they sound almost ethereal; at least it seems unlikely that anyone of this earth, male or female, could have produced such immaculate tones. To be bluntly honest, Mr. Scholl doesn't seem to have much acting range beyond passionate earnestness, and his voice isn't highly flexible; his effects were all in different keys of melancholy. Still, at his best, he achieves something close to holiness, a rare virtue in our secular age, and one that has a special resonance in sacred music.

Thus it was no surprise that his best moments on Friday came in Vivaldi's "Filiae Maestae Jerusalem" and especially Stabat Mater, a moving contemplation of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross. With the orchestration pared back to a despairing spareness, Scholl's radiant vocals seemed to embody a sorrow so pure it had been transmuted into eternal mystery - and the crowd was soon on its feet roaring its approval. And for a moment, I understood this charming countertenor's cult.

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