Wayfaring Stranger: Folksongs

Reviewed by The Cat Lady

Andreas Scholl, Countertenor
Decca 289 468 499, 74.24 minutes, $17.95

Years ago, I walked into a record store and was stopped dead in my tracks by an extraordinary voice: impossibly high and reedy, like a human oboe, but unmistakably male -- glutted with melancholy, like it was mourning the death of all nature, yet soaring sublimely above all tragedy like a soul sloughing off the cocoon of the body. "Was this a castrato?" I thought. "Do they still do that?"

No, they don't. The singer was Alfred Deller, and all of his equipment was intact. Deller was simply a countertenor, a man with a very high voice. After World War II, Deller braved all taunts about his masculinity (getting rid of his ascots would have helped), and reclaimed a vast repertoire written for castrati, countertenors, and other men with high voices. For many years, this repertoire had been sung by female mezzo-sopranos, but Deller's many recordings demonstrated that there is no substitute for the countertenor voice.

The countertenor has a quality of sublimity that a mezzo-soprano lacks. It is natural for women to have high voices, but it is not natural for men to do so. Therefore, the countertenor gives the impression of struggling to rise above nature and the body, transcending them toward the spiritual or the ideal. This is why, in the eighteenth century such composers as Handel and Glück wrote the heroic roles in many an opera for castrati. Granted, it seems bizarre for a man with no testicles to sing the role of Julius Caesar, but the essence of heroism is to subordinate -- and, if necessary, to sacrifice -- one's physical existence to the pursuit of an ideal, and this sublime transcendence is communicated by the very timbre of the countertenor. For the same reason, the countertenor, like the boy soprano, is uniquely suited for sacred music. Traditionally, the countertenor indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit, the medium between the natural and the divine orders of reality. According to Plato, love too is a "daimonic" medium between the natural and divine orders of reality, thus it is also logical that a great deal of romantic music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the present day naturally lends itself to the countertenor voice. The same logic is at work, in a much debased form, in the falsetto squeaking and wailing of contemporary Negro love songs.

Alfred Deller died in 1979, and for more than 15 years, admirers of countertenors had to settle for a number of inferior, wobbly voices. Today, however, we are blessed with a stream of recordings from two of the best countertenors of all time: Andreas Scholl and David Daniels. Of the two, Scholl has been the most prolific and, when compared side by side with Daniels in performances of the same works, he is usually my favorite.

Scholl's latest release, Wayfaring Stranger, is one of my favorites, and is the best introduction to his voice for those who are not (yet) fans of the countertenor voice -- or of classical music, for that matter. Wayfaring Stranger is a collection of folk songs from England, Scotland, Ireland, and the United States. There is a pleasing alteration of haunting ballads about love and religion and catchy, up-tempo songs about pirates, gypsies, etc.

In the first category, my favorites are "I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger," an Appalachian hymn-ballad about this vale of tears; "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose," with lyrics by Robert Burns wedded to a Scottish folksong "Major Graham's Red Red Rose"; "Wild Mountain Thyme," another Scottish ballad, this one from the 18th century; "She Moved Through the Fair," one of Ireland's most haunting ballads of love and death; "Barbara Allen," which dates from the 17th century and is one of the most famous of English folksongs; and "Black is the Color [of My True Love's Hair]" from the early 20th century (and by the way, "Her face is something wondrous fair"). Every one of these songs is guaranteed to bring a tear to the most jaundiced eye.

In the second category, my favorites are "Henry Martin," about a Scottish lad who becomes a pirate, and "The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies, O!", which shows that even in the 18th century, some proper white women had a perverse desire to run off with swarthy types. Listening to these songs makes me long for a collection of Sea Shanties by Scholl.

Scholl is German, but like most Germans of his generation, his command of English is superior to that of many native speakers, particularly in the U.S. Craig Leon's arrangements are breathtakingly beautiful, romantic yet understated, with a pastoral quality that is often simply ecstatic.

Those who buy this CD will surely want to explore more recordings by Scholl, and by countertenors in general. For those who want more English songs, I highly recommend Scholl's English Folksongs and Lute Songs (Harmonia Mundi, 901603) with works by John Dowland and Thomas Campion as well as stunning folksongs. The shattering "King Henry" alone is worth the price of the whole CD. Alfred Deller recorded a vast amount of English music, and his best collections are O Ravishing Delight (Harmonia Mundi, 90215), with works by Dowland, Campion, Purcell and others, and his last and greatest recording, Music for a While, songs of Henry Purcell (Harmonia Mundi 94249). (As a general rule, Deller's recordings on Harmonia Mundi have by far the best sound quality.)

Those who wish to explore the countertenor voice in sacred music should begin with Scholl's performance of Pergolesi's sublime yet immediately captivating Stabat Mater (Decca 289 466 134) and then check out his recording of Bach's Cantatas for Alto (BWV 35, 54, and 170) (Harmonia Mundi 901644).

As for heroic castrato arias: Scholl's Heroes (Decca 289 466 196) is a magnificent collection of arias by Handel, Hasse, Glück, and Mozart. But one should also check out David Daniel's superb collections of this repertoire, Handel, Operatic Arias and Sento Amor, with works by Handel, Glück, and Mozart (both on Virgin Classics). In many instances, Daniels' performances outstrip Scholl's.

One word or warning to the gentlemen: Don't be surprised if you start singing falsetto in the shower.


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