Twilight People: Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin at Wigmore Hall

This is the title which the German countertenor Andreas Scholl and his
Israeli wife, pianist Tamar Halperin, have chosen for several of their
performances in recent years, and it is also the title of their latest disc
– which launched BMG’s new Modern Recordings series in November – the programme of which they brought to Wigmore Hall following performances
at the Concertgebouw and elsewhere in the UK.

Presenting works by Britten and Vaughan Williams, Copland and Berg, as well
as by less well-known contemporary composers Israeli Ari Frankel and
Egyptian-born Joseph Tawadros, the duo seek to explore the territory that
lies between folk music and art song. At Wigmore Hall they supplemented the
items on the disc in order to create two parallel sequences, Arvo P‰rt
balancing Frankel at the start of the respective halves, Vaughan Williams
in conversation with Berg in the centre, and, at least as originally
intended, Britten followed by Tawadros bringing each half to a close. Many
songs segued without pause; interspersed between the songs were works for
solo piano by John Cage.

There may have arrived quite a few new kids on the countertenor block since
Scholl began his career, but there can be few who have such purity of tone,
quasi-angelic lyricism and directness of utterance as the German singer.
Texts were given due and customary care, and there were moments of
lightness and gentle humour to counter the gravity of spirit. Halperin, who
is also a harpsichordist and who undertook doctoral research on the music
of Bach, combines clarity and sure definition – of tone and architecture –
with a delicate, precise manner of articulation: her slender fingers craft
strong forms which are delivered with, paradoxically, astonishing
gentleness and power.

I couldn’t help feeling, though, that despite the diversity of composer
names on the programme list, there was a certain ‘sameness’ as the sequence
of songs unfolded – an interpretative levelling, as it were; unfailingly
beautiful, Scholl’s accounts did not journey to the potential extremes of
the emotional terrain, but settled in a safe middle ground, the volume and
expressive temperature generally moderate.

Perhaps the high temple of art song fosters a certain mood and manner,
consciously or otherwise? Scholl’s English folksongs, as arranged by
Britten and Vaughan Williams, were more drawing-room than folk-club, lofty
rather than soulful. ‘The Ashgrove’ was beautiful but Scholl was a rather
‘detached’ balladeer; ‘Greensleeves’ had greater range of vocal colour,
with the proclamations of the refrain, “Greensleeves was all my joy”,
ringing with clarion strength and directness. In the latter, too, we were
reminded by the piano’s dissonant text-pointing and disrupting spread
chords, that Britten’s songs are essentially art song transformations which
extract from the folk source, pure or corrupted, material that is then made
anew for the composer’s own purposes. In this way, it was fitting that the
‘The Salley Gardens’ had a ‘slight edginess’ as the singer’s mellifluous
line was countered with the piano’s quiet, somewhat dry staccatos,
capturing the protagonist’s discomfort as he looks back ruefully on his
foolish youth.

Britten looked to Grainger and Moeran in his approach, as
composer-arranger, to the folk sources, rejecting what he perceived as
Vaughan Williams’ conservative – musical and political – pastoralism. But,
‘In the Spring’ offered Scholl the opportunity to showcase the melodism to
which Vaughan Williams drew attention, as the essence of the folksong, in
his review of Britten’s first volume of folk settings (in the Journal of the English Folk Song and Dance Society,
December 1943): ‘Are we old fogeys of the Folk-song movement getting into a
rut? If so, it is very good for us to be pulled out of it by such fiery
young steeds as Benjamin Britten and Herbert Murill. We see one side of a
folk-song, they see the other […] The tune’s the thing with which we’ll
catch the conscience of the composer.’ ‘Silent noon’ (from The House of Life) and ‘Tired’ (from Four Last Songs
(1958)) require a more nuanced engagement with the text. The latter, which
sets a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams describing her sleeping husband, was
a tender lullaby, though the piano’s low rocking intimated a darkness which
hinted at the eternal sleep to come, the closing cadence seemingly infused
with quiet wistfulness. The unaccompanied opening of ‘The twilight people’
(setting Seamus O’Sullivan) was poised and melancholy, though Scholl
revealed the depth and complexity of the protagonist’s sadness, heightening
the cry, “Twilight people, why will you still be crying,/ Crying and
calling to me out of the trees?”

It was, however, Halperin’s interpretations of Cage which raised the
emotional heat. As she leant over the Steinway keyboard, her motionless
shoulders belied the almost harrowing intensity of the ostinato repetitions
of ‘Soliloquy’ which grew too a cavernous, metallic roar, while in ‘Jazz
Study’ the contrasting rhythmic idioms – boogie-woogie, ragtime and blues –
seemed to fight contentiously against assimilation, threatening to burst
beyond the boundaries. Indeed, ‘Jazz Study’ had erupted from the applause
for the preceding song, Copland’s ‘I bought me a cat’ (from Old American Songs Set 1), which made for an odd sandwich-filling
between the two Cage piano works, especially as Scholl’s re-enactment of
the cacophonous menagerie was rather genteel. Previously, ‘The little
horses’ and ‘At the river’ (from Set 2) had played to Scholl’s lyrical
strengths, yet again the sentiments seem to be politely presented rather
than ‘lived within’.

Berg’s ‘Abschied’ saw Scholl employ his natural baritone – which is light
and fresh; ‘Vielgeliebte schone Frau’ was more sultry, while Berg’s R¸ckert
setting, ‘Ferne Lieder’, trembled with a suppressed intensity at the close:
“Under die fernen Lieder sind/ Laut geword’nes Schweigen” (And the distant
songs turn into a loud silence). It was, however, the unfamiliar songs that
I found most engaging and moving. The piano’s cool bare fifths at the start
of Ari Frankel’s ‘The rest’ seemed to draw one into the world of Schubert’s
Leiermann, the almost monotonal vocal line conjuring that song’s
juxtaposition of movement and stasis, as the hurdy-gurdy turns but the
pedal tones and melodic repetitions deny life. It was a challenging song
with which to open the recital, and Scholl skilfully crafted the transition
from constriction to increasing focus and fullness, before blanching the
colour at the close. No less impressive were, as a second-half counterpart,
Arvo P‰rt’s ‘Vater unser’ and, especially, ‘Es sang vor langen Jahren’, in
which the piano’s repetitions were this time juxtaposed with expertly
negotiated contrasts of vocal register. Here, Scholl, singing in his native
tongue, conveyed greater sensitivity to the details of the text, poignantly
painting an image of memory embodied in a nightingale’s song.

I was captivated by Joseph Tawadros’ ‘Beauty is life’ (setting Kahlil
Gibran) which closed the first half of the recital. Again, harmonic stasis
was countered by an almost wild rhythmic energy which rushed forth in the
piano from the opening vocalise: “Beauty is life when life unveils her holy
face.” The final vocal fall, resting on dissonance, was a fine embodiment
of the poetic dichotomy, “you are eternity and you are the mirror”. I was
disappointed that Scholl and Halperin denied us the opportunity to hear
Tawadros’ ‘A truth’ – another Gibran setting that was originally designed
to bring the recital to a symmetrical close – which they replaced with
Brahms’ ‘In stiller Nacht’.

We had two encores: first, Shlomo Gronich’s ‘Al Na Telech’, an arrangment of Bach’s C major Prelude BWV846, and then an arrangement by Halperin of ‘O Waly
Waly’. The latter, a three-way conversation between the folk past, Britten
and Halperin was a perfect embodiment of the underlying ethos of the

Claire Seymour

Andreas Scholl (countertenor), Tamar Halperin (piano)

Ari Frankel: ‘The Rest’; Copland: ‘The Little Horses’, ‘At the river’;
Vaughan Williams: ‘In the Spring’; Berg: ‘Wo der Goldregen steht’; Vaughan
Williams: ‘Silent Noon’; Cage: ‘Soliloquy’; Copland: ‘I Bought me a Cat’;
Cage: ‘Jazz Study’; Britten: ‘The Ash Grove’; Joseph Tawadros: ‘Beauty is
Life’ (arr. Matt McMahon); P‰rt: ‘Es sang vor langen Jahren’, ‘Vater
unser’; Britten: ‘Greensleeves’; Berg: ‘Abschied’, ‘Vielgeliebte schˆne
Frau’, ‘Ferne Lieder’; Vaughan Williams: ‘The Twilight People’, ‘Tired’;
Cage: ‘In a Landscape’; Britten: ‘The Salley Gardens’; Brahms: ‘In stiller

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 24th January 2020.

product_title=Twilight People: Andreas Scholl (countertenor), Tamar Halperin (piano), at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin