The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 49.0°F | Light Rain
Article Tools

Period Instrument Orchestra

Jean-Christophe Spinosi, conductor

Andreas Scholl, countertenor

Symphony Hall, Boston, MA

October 11, 2009

A point of clarification: the practice of castrating pre-pubescent boys that showed promise in singing started in the sixteenth century somewhere in Italy. In the absence of the testosterone-secreting gland, limbs elongated, ribs kept growing (resulting in extraordinarily large lung capacity) and, perhaps most importantly, the larynx failed to develop: the adult male (castrato in Italian) retained his pre-pubescent range and flexibility. Subsequent training developed the pre-pubescent voice into a mature, fully-developed, yet eerily pristine, alto or soprano voice part.

While castrati were originally used exclusively for ecclesiastical music (the Sistine Chapel, for instance, had one of the most famous castrato choirs until the early twentieth century), castrati gained in popularity and were used extensively for major roles in opera during the Baroque and Classical periods. Successful castrati were wildly popular, stealing the celebrity of any given stage, guaranteeing full houses for any given opera, commanding small fortunes for solo recitals and (perhaps confusingly) were often objects of great sexual desire.

In contrast, the countertenor voice part was formalized in 18th century in England during the reign of William and Mary (the English, for some reason, never jumped on the castrato bandwagon). Henry Purcell, the court composer at the time, decided to write unreasonably high parts for some tenors in his choir, forcing grown men to sing in their pre-pubescent upper register, the falsetto (remember Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire?). Grown men, most often with rich bass or baritone voices, were trained to sing so high that they shared the range of boys, sounded like boys, and often replaced boys, creating an adult male part that sang higher than the tenors: the countertenor.

Conflating castrati with countertenors began in the late nineteenth century when intentional castration for the purposes of musical performance was deemed barbaric. Slowly, all the European countries, and now the world, outlawed the practice; the last famous castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922. Only countertenors remain to sing music written for the castrato voice by some of the world’s greatest composers (Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Händel, Mozart, to name a few).

This is exactly what countertenor Andreas Scholl did on Sunday, October 12, in a collaboration with Jean-Christophe Spinosi and the Period Instrument Orchestra at Boston’s Symphony Hall.

The program featured various works by the Baroque composers Vivaldi and Handel. Spinosi’s ensemble began the performance with Vivaldi’s Overture to La fida ninfa; razor sharp dynamic contrasts in the opening Allegro lolled into an indulgent, lugubrious Andante movement that culminated in a refreshing Allegro closing movement. Mr. Spinosi’s complete control over the ensemble manifested itself in sparkling precision and jeweled articulation.

Mr. Scholl joined the ensemble for Vivaldi’s secular cantata, Cessate, omai cessate. Scholl’s tone was impeccable, warming period-appropriate straight-tone with tinges of vibrato. He soared without restraint into the very highest of his register for ad libitum ornamentation and smoothly transitioned through the passaggio at the bottoms of hair-raising melismatic runs into a startlingly rich baritone. Scholl’s mid-range, however, seemed to stagnate, somehow unable to affect the drama of Vivaldi’s setting. Spinosi’s orchestra worked as well as accompaniment as it had center-stage, again, displaying a unique ability to shift dynamic and mood at moment’s notice, providing surprisingly sensitive counterpoint to Scholl’s.

The program continued with another vibrant orchestral interlude, Vivaldi’s Sinfonia in b minor, “Al santo sepolcro” (RV 169) (a startling two-movement work rife with stunning chromaticism and a startling fugue) and concluded the first half with two Händel arias, “Dall’ondoso periglio...Aure, deh, per pieta” from Giulio Cesare and “Se parla nel mio cor” from Giustino. Again, Scholl and Spinosi were almost prescient of the other’s motivations throughout the music, presenting a clear, united thesis of both works. Problems with Scholl’s middle range, however, plagued these arias more than the initial cantata, particularly in the first aria: An over-zealous orchestra and restrained soloist obfuscated the melody of Caesar’s aria. Se parla nel mio cor, however, found Scholl more at home, highlighting his incredible range, flexibility and impeccable articulation.

Sunday’s performance concluded with Vivaldi’s Filiae maestae Jerusalem, a stark setting of the Catholic Stabat mater sequence, depicting Mary at the crucifixion of Christ; Spinosi led an appropriately dour orchestra accompanying an inconsolable Scholl in a meditation on sorrow and sacrifice. Scholl, performing with score for this lengthy cantata, appeared more comfortable with his middle range for this work. A gloomy introduction gave way to the chilling setting of the Stabat mater text. As before, ad libitum ornamentation relieved tedium of repeated verses while showcasing Scholl’s incredible articulation, range and facility in expression. A magnificent melismatic Amen movement concluded the work on an uplifting (and much-needed) Picardy third resulting in an almost immediate standing ovation from the audience.

Although, theoretically, Sunday’s concert used countertenor as ersatz castrato, there’s an argument to be made that not much imagination is needed to envision what this music would have sounded like in its original incarnation. The countertenor timbre is somehow fragile, more nuanced its delineation between a boy soprano and female soprano in ways that can’t necessarily be articulated. Almost certainly, it’s not the same as a true castrato’s voice; that form of singer, sound, even method of training are all lost to the ages. But with Scholl performing, does that really matter?

The Handel and Haydn Society; sponsor of Mr. Scholl, Mr. Spinosi, and the Period Instrument Orchestra; continues its season on November 6 and 8 with performances of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 and Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony.