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Wayfaring Stranger

November 20, 2008

I've just been on a business trip to Basel, Switzerland. I didn't think I'd have the time to take in any of this lovely, small city's culture during my workaholic week-long stay, much less catch a recital by Andreas Scholl, one of my favorite vocalists in the entire world.

Turns out the German countertenor spends quite a bit of time in Basel: he teaches at the Schola Cantorum in the city.

If I had realized this beforehand I would no doubt have tried to wangle an interview with the great man, no matter the craziness of my work schedule. As it was, I felt incredibly lucky to be in town to hear him perform. I'm a Scholl groupie and proud of it too. Some of Scholl's students were present atthe concert. I heard them talking excitedly in English to a couple of
middle-aged women (who may well have also been professional singers or singing
teachers) outside the church where the singer was about to perform.

The gig was wonderful because of the intimate setting and format. My previous experiences of going to hear Scholl perform live have always been on the large scale. I've heard him in 1000-plus seat concert halls and opera houses, often with full or chamber-sized orchestras.

This time, however, the singer was performing a series of 16th-17th century English songs by the likes of John Dowland and Thomas Campion such as "I Saw my Lady Weep" and "Have you Seen the Bright Lily Grow" and numbers from his Wayfaring Stranger album (a fabulous collection of old Anglo-American folk songs like "Down by the Sally Gardens" and "Black is the Color") in the smallish Leonhardskirche with just a lutenist/guitarist (Crawford Young) to accompany him.

Scholl's ringing tone, feeling phrasing and pristine intonation were all present that day, as was his dramatic delivery of some of the songs. What was missing from the performance, though, was the singer's usual gusto. Scholl gave the impression that he was feeling low and tired. Instead of standing while he sang, he mostly sat next to Young on a stool. This helped to create the casual and cozy atmosphere of the gig, but it made for a rather contained performance that lacked true communication and
electricity.

What was also curious was the selection of songs. You can always count on Dowland for melancholy. But the singer seemed determined to avoid anything genuinely upbeat. Lost love, wretchedness and death permeated the repertoire from "In Darkness Let me Dwell" to "I Loved A Lass".

The final song, a long strophic dirge entitled "Lord Rendall", made for the most peculiar recital climax I think I've ever
witnessed: I couldn't believe that Scholl picked a song about a guy being nagged by his mother on his deathbed to send his audience off. Thankfully, he stuck in the more feisty pirating ballad, "Henry Martin", which shows off the singer's warm baritone chest voice as well as his trademark countertenor, as an encore. If Scholl hadn't sung that encore, I think I would have left the church feeling very puzzled indeed.

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