Bringing “Desiring Beauty” to Old South Church in Boston on Sunday, counter-tenor Andreas Scholl invited Victor Coelho on lute, David Dolata on theorbo, and Laura Jeppesen on viola da gamba to join him for a short but satisfying selection of songs and instrumental works, mainly from the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
The caption was most likely taken from one of the songs on the program by Thomas Campion (1567–1620) called “Beauty, since you so much desire.” Indeed, the sheer beauty of Scholl’s voice is the first thing listeners tend to notice, and reveling in that wonderful sound is certainly desirable. But, like the Campion song itself, the charming melody of which supports unexpected lyrics, the singer’s sonorities float on surprising interpretive depth and flexibility. Scholl excelled at capturing the sly playfulness of the tune about the anatomical placement of Cupid’s fire, as well as that of the coy country girl described in the same composer’s “I care not for these ladies”, without making them overtly bawdy. His humor also became evident in his lively performance of “Say, Love, if you ever didst find,” (played as an encore), one of the few cheerful songs by the great and oft greatly depressed John Dowland (1563–1626).
Most of the songs on the program were of a less chipper nature, which played even more to Scholl’s expressive strengths. He crystalized the soft agony of Dowland’s dying swan in “All ye, whom love or fortune hath betrayed,” and brought true poignancy to the melodious declamations in “Can she excuse my wrongs”—the composer at his saddest and best. Some of the most remarkable moments of the night, however, were ones in which Scholl could simply let the clear quality of his voice carry the interpretation; such as in the three folksongs “I will give my love an apple,” “I am a poor wayfaring stranger,” and “There were three ravens.” He imbued all with a somewhat monochromatic yet heart-wrenching elegance; he also employed a limpid but aching lingering on the words such as “O so soft, o so sweet is she,” the last line of “Have you seen the bright lily grow” by Robert Johnson (1583–1633).
Nearly everything we heard was in English. Scholl’s enunciation proved quite articulate, and, from an expressive standpoint, it is clear that he knows what every word means. He seems, however, to be even more at home in Italian, as evidenced in the two works in that language. The last and latest item heard, “Nel dolce tempo” a delightful cantata by a youthful Georg Friedrich Händel (1685–1759), allowed Scholl to showcase his reserved yet effective theatrical skills as he portrayed both a lovelorn shepherd and a noble nymph. “Amarilli, mia bella” by Giulo Caccini (1551–1618) came earlier. Scholl’s serenely impassioned take on this simple, near-perfect love song was alone worth the price of admission.
At least one of the instrumentalists, each of whom also delivered a solo work, accompanied each song. Coehlo made attractively delicate interpretations, but his small lute would clearly have projected more effectively in spaces more intimate than the sanctuary of a large church. His graceful inner-voice ornamentations in songs such as Campion’s “My sweetest Lesbia,” as well as his lovely interpretation of a toccata by Giovanni Kapsberger (1580–1651) were barely audible, even from only eight rows back. Dolata’s theorbo projected more, but there seemed to be less going on from an interpretive standpoint. Jeppesen, on the other hand, with her sensitive and versatile approach to the music, was in many ways the second soloist. On the viol, she is every bit a singer as Scholl, a quality that added rich layers to the Dowland songs (the bass lines of which were clearly conceived vocally). She also provided another colorful voice in the folksong arrangements, as well as in the Handel cantata. Her energetic and sprightly performance of a galliard by Tobias Hume (1579–1645) made a captivating highlight of the afternoon.