The fusion of visual aspects to what is customarily a purely audible experience can lead to varying degrees of success. Cecilia Bartoli’s recent DVD of Sacrificium, for example, shows exactly how detrimental this can be, with a grotesque sense of artificiality throughout, from the added applause of an invisible audience to studio-quality sound as we watch her and the members of Il Giardino Armonico perform outside in a picturesque garden. Everything is perfect and beautiful but feels fake. While the Sacrificium CD is surely one of the most impressive discs Bartoli has produced, the addition of video to audio resulted in undoubtedly her worst DVD yet.
At the other end of the audio-video spectrum was the concert given by Andreas Scholl and Shield of Harmony at the Barbican last night. It was clear, even before I entered the auditorium, that this was going to be a concert with a twist. As I was handed a free programme, I was told the concert would last about an hour and a quarter and that there would be no interval. This immediately put me in a good mood – I have a thing about intervals – and as I browsed through the programme, it became apparent that Scholl wanted to question the standard structure of concerts, and was inviting his audience to do the same.
This was achieved through a number of means. The lack of interval and reservation of applause to the very end facilitated a sustained but not exhausting period of concentration. In addition there was the employment of various non-musical media, in the form of a narrator/actor, varying degrees of lighting, and most significantly of all, a large, cinematic screen with slow-moving images projected onto it. Perhaps the best way of describing the movement of the images is a very sophisticated screen-saver, slowly zooming in on an image as it appears to come nearer and nearer towards the screen, and then fading subtly into another. The pictures included musical manuscripts, medieval erotic scenes, sacred images, old maps and ancient, stone statues, as well as depictions of the one-eyed Wolkenstein himself, whose music and life story dominated this concert.
The Barbican’s wooden interior at the back of the stage was completed obscured by large black panels, brought forward so that the depth of the stage was significantly (and advantageously) reduced. Three tables stood on the blackened stage, with chairs dotted about. On top and beneath one of the tables lay a variety of medieval instruments, including a lute, viol, harp, viola d’arco and dulcimelos. The lighting of the Barbican was diminished to near pitch-black, the only source of light coming from the cinematic screen.
The narrator, Bart Vanlaere, came on the stage in silence, and one could just about make out his journey to one of the tables, sitting down at it, leaning his elbow on the table-top and resting his head in his hand. For about thirty seconds this still, silent, scarcely visible figure was the centre of attention. Into this hushed darkness of the Barbican, Scholl’s voice penetrated with unfailing tone. The sound entered from behind me on my right-hand side, Scholl situated at the top of the stairs, and singing continuously and unaccompanied as he slowly made his way down the steps and onto the stage. Scholl, like Vanlaere, was adorned with a black eye-patch and a sling for one arm, but this was neither gimmicky nor humorous. Instead, it marked the beginning of the remarkable story of Wolkenstein’s life, starting with his final years, when he had only one eye and one arm.
Oswold von Wolkenstein (c. 1376 – 1445) is described in the interesting and amusing programme notes of Hilary Finch as ‘the last great medieval romantic’. His exploits included being sent as a diplomat to the service of Sigismund, King of Hungary, becoming a monk, numerous amorous encounters, coping with the stress of landlords and his seven, rowdy children, and journeying to many different countries. When Valaerne was giving the introduction to the song about Wolkenstein’s desired destinations, "Durch Barbarei, Arabia", he got an inadvertent laugh from the audience as he announced he wished to travel though “Estonia, Lithuania, Sweden and Iceland” – (presumably he wouldn’t want to be visiting the latter just at the moment!)
Because of the lack of light, it was impossible to see any of the printed texts and translations provided in the programme. Initially I thought this might be a problem, but soon realised that this was another aspect of Scholl’s new concert style. The texts and translations were actually completely superfluous, for Valaerne dramatically introduced each song by delivering a short passage as if from Wolkenstein himself – Valaerne was really as much an actor as he was a narrator. These introductions were delivered in English, with subtle instrumental accompaniment, which would then seamlessly lead into the next song. In each song Scholl would then gesticulate certain features that Valaerne had just mentioned, such as making the sign of the cross in a song where Wolkenstein had become a monk, or dramatically clinging onto his earlobes after we had just been told of the rather painful double ear-piercing the composer had received from a beautiful young maiden in a royal court. The most humorous of these acted-out songs was about various types of birds. These can, of course, be rather cliché, but Scholl’s extraordinary capability of imitating a range of birds was both impressive and genuinely comic, from cuckoo to wren to thrush to lark.
The concert was structured in a sort of rondo-refrain form, with the long, repetitive song, Es fügt sich, divided into four sections, the first of which was heard at the beginning, and the remaining three spread out over the course of the evening. I was a little apprehensive about this but it actually worked very well, not only to add structure to the whole performance, but also because a straight reading of the song in its entirety, with a duration of twelve minutes, would have become exasperating, given its high degree of repetition.
Scholl sang as a baritone for two of the songs. At times the music seemed to lie ever so slightly too low for his voice, and at other times he seemed a little insecure singing in this voice-type, over-compensating a little by gesticulating enthusiastically and breaking into spoken text every now and again (think Machaut meets Kurt Weill). But these were fleeting and did not irritate me, nor did the odd moment – and they really were very rare – where, back in countertenor voice, Scholl’s intonation was not quite perfect. Ninety-nine per cent of the time his tuning was spot-on, including all his duet-singing with Kathleen Dineen. Throughout the concert, the purity and direction of Scholl’s voice was as secure and beautiful as ever. Every aspect – quality of tone, phrasing, diction, breath control, musical sensitivity, reaction to the text – was executed with captivating command.
The highlight of the evening was an exquisite song, Nu rue mit sorgen. This began with the wonderful, multi-talented Dineen accompanying herself on the harp as her glorious, unaffected, vibrato-free soprano floated effortlessly out to the audience. After the first verse, Scholl added his creamy countertenor to the texture, followed by gentle successive entries from viola d’arco, lute and exotic sounding dulcimelos. It was a mesmerizing performance, and I was delighted that they reprised this song as an encore. Dineen sang several other songs as well, including one alone, unaccompanied and with a sincere simplicity. Whenever she sang with Scholl, their voices not only blended but melted together, and each singer’s perfect intonation gave the occasional unison note a sublime colour.
Some readers might be wondering about the Barbican’s acoustic, where even the most formidable voice can sound a little feeble. It should be stated that all the performers were amplified, but utterly naturally, to the extent that if you closed your eyes and didn’t know where you were, you would swear that you were listening to an unamplified performance in the Wigmore Hall. This brilliantly countered the Barbican’s problematic acoustic for singers. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I have never enjoyed a vocal concert at the Barbican as much as this. The level of amplification was perfect and not in the least artificial sounding.
The whole event was a triumph from start to finish. It was clear that a tremendous amount of care and preparation had gone into every detail of this concert. Just before the encore, Scholl highlighted the dedication of two of the instrumentalists, who had endured a fourteen-hour ferry journey to make it to the concert, due to the current flight restrictions. Every performer seemed completely and genuinely committed to this performance, inspired by Scholl’s enthusiasm and leadership. We all know what an extraordinary instrument Scholl possesses – we’ve known for some time now. But in this concert, through imaginative creativity and musicianship, he proved that he is far, far more than just a pretty voice. It was quite simply one of the most enjoyable and memorable concerts I have ever, ever attended. Let us hope that Scholl has set a precedent for others to follow.