The Music of Henry Purcell, the English Concert with Andreas Scholl, Walt Disney Hall, October 11, 2011

It’s so easy to gush, isn’t it? So easy to breathe in and try to get enough running room to reach the heights of hyperbole that you need for an enthusiastic review. And so often it just sounds forced. It’s not here. This really, honestly was spectacular. Beyond spectacular. Of course I have to pay more mind to the voice since that was the showpiece instrument, but … damn. Scholl was flawless. He made that hall ring like a bell, with the most perfect, purest, unaffected sound I’ve ever heard from a falsettist. He really is the calibration point by which all others must be measured. I heard him once before in Santa Barbara with the ACO, and this concert blew that one away, aided no doubt by the somewhat cleaner acoustics at Disney Hall.

I love Purcell’s music, and I’m not even a specialist in it. It was a DVD of ye-olde-schule falsettist standards where I first encountered him, with a smorgasbord of voices, and I noticed that every time I sat forward and thought, “Ooh hey, that one’s really good,” it was by Purcell. I fell in love with “Sound the Trumpets” and the “Evening Hymn” in particular; it took Klaus Nomi to make me fall in love with “Cold Song.” I was thrilled to learn about this concert and almost dropped over when I learned that Scholl would very likely sing “Cold Song.” (He did. Wow.)

Because of this, I freely admit that I sat in my seat last night waiting for the concert to start, amazed that I was about to hear some of my favorite stuff sung by the greatest living falsettist, backed by one hell of a band. I stand behind my incoherent gushing. Gah. Buh. Mmmmmph. It was unbelievable. Holy crap.

“Sweeter than Roses.” (With a short false start that the audience completely forgave. In small quantities, these things are charming.) “Music for a While,” which I’ll always associate with Alfred Deller. “Evening Hymn.” “O Solitude.” “The Cold Song.” “Dido’s Lament.” Just the whole top ten of Purcell, in the purest, clearest, most glittery voice. It sounds so clinical to compliment him on his intonation, phrasing, and the sheer champagne beauty of his vibrato, which is why I’m trying not to bring it up. But trust me, that all came across as well. I just don’t want to make it seem as if this is the sort of thing one should listen to with a checklist of notes in hand, waiting for errors. Classical music already has a long row to hoe fighting against that image of sourpusses sitting in the audience checking off notes.

Nevertheless.

When a group of people can lift you out of your seat with beauty and also just happen to get it all perfect, it makes an impression.

The band put a nice dark belt under it all, too — I’ll never be a huge fan of Baroque violins. Too skatey and too watercolor, not a deep enough core to the sound. (Although lots of people adore them, so that’s just a matter of taste.) But the violas were better, the cello was great (played standing up and propped on a padded piano bench, which seemed very sensible to me), and the violone was to die for. A beautiful thing as well, with one of those extravagant cornices-and-oak-leaf-lobes silhouettes that is sometimes seen on violas d’amore. Man, that thing sounded like heaven. The lutenist came out after the intermission with a little Baroque guitar, which could actually be heard — not always the case. It added a needed angularity to the music that old-style strings can’t contribute easily. Together with the harpsichord, it all was a lot meatier than one would have thought. No prissiness in this stuff, and they used the power well. The swell the band added underneath was a direct contrast to the occasionally too timid orchestration for some of these pieces in other interpretations. They filled the hall without once swamping Scholl. When I heard them a while back with David Daniels, there were more of them on the stage, and they did indeed overwhelm him a few times. Not this time. Fewer musicians, and a beautiful balance between all instruments, including the biological one.

I’ll stop. It’s just a gush at this point. Gah. It’s true — bad reviews take a lot more telling, but good ones are often boring, just “OMG GO SEE THIS.”

Well, OMG GO SEE THIS.

Geeky stuff I noticed: I only saw the first violin shift once. The reeds were fantastic — Baroque reeds really sound great. A bit of a gender swap since three of the four high strings were male, and the oboes and bassoon were all women. The trumpets were also cool; one of them had to perform some sort of emergency drainage blowout towards the end. Again, I’m glad I don’t have to clean spit out of a piano or a viola.

Non-geeky stuff I noticed: One of the violists had on the most beautifully colored long purple dress. The cellist was adorable. The cello was also nice, that gorgeous deep cherry-brown that I like so much on strings. None of the other instruments were particularly beautiful looking. Scholl looks like he’s in his early 30s, the bastard.

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