There are not many singers who could nearly fill the Barbican Hall for a presentation of songs by an obscure 14th century Tyrolean adventurer but Andreas Scholl has such a devoted following in the UK that one imagines they would turn out to hear him sing the Yellow Pages. Scholl has never been afraid to tread his own path, even venturing a pop album and a charmingly accented disc of British Folk Songs.
Oswald von Wolkenstein was a truly larger than life character even when seen in the context of the turbulent Europe of the 14th and 15th centuries. The continent was ravaged by plague, wars, shifting borders and changing allegiances as well as the first intimations of the religious upheavals of the reformation.
The second son of a minor family, Oswald was sent out into the world at the tender age of 10 as a squire to a wandering knight. His ensuing adventures took him all over Europe and as wide afield as Lithuania, Tartary and Turkey. Throughout his travels he, magpie-like, collected scraps of music, which he combined with his own and borrowed poetry to fill two volumes of songs.
These books formed the bedrock of Scholl’s presentation with the Shield of Harmony providing a richly varied accompaniment on medieval instruments. The ensemble are also responsible for setting the instrumental and textural accompaniment since none is contained in the original manuscripts, which do not set keys either.
I have deliberately billed the evening as a presentation rather than a concert since the latter word is a wholly inadequate description of the theatrical feast set before us. The evening began in almost total darkness with a projected collage of merging images from statuary, manuscripts and paintings of the period. In a breathless silence the narrator, Bart Vanlaere, took his place onstage.
Out of the darkness Scholl’s disembodied voice began “Herz, müt, leib, sei” (Heart, mind, body, soul) from the rear of the stalls as he slowly made his way to the stage. At the commencement of the evening both Scholl and Vanlaere wore dark suits, black arm slings and eye-patches channelling the monocular Wolkenstein. The danger of unintended humour was banished by the performers’ absolute seriousness of purpose. The props, having established the character, were discarded and only used again for the final images of the evening. However this framing device was remarkably effective and made all the more so by the Scholl’s extraordinary voice first being heard in the darkness seemingly pulling us back into a different and unfamiliar era.
The format of the main part of the evening consisted of Vanlaere giving us a colloquial précis of each song. The supremely versatile Vanlaere, who had already performed from memory the narration in Dutch and German and was still due to tackle French, was an excellent partner to Scholl as were Crawford Young’s superb Shield of Harmony Ensemble.
The highlight of an extraordinary evening was Scholl’s duet “Nu ruhe mit sorgen” with the beguiling soprano of Kathleen Dineen. The interweaving of the deceptively simple musical lines and the contrast of Dineen’s sensuous tones with the unearthly purity of Scholl’s voice seemed to make time stand still and one hardly dared breathe. Pure magic.