Star countertenor proves there’s much more to the voice than a load of old Baroque.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney, October 5, 2013

An odd title for a concert this one as although Mr Scholl did indeed sing Vivaldi’s marvellous Stabat Mater as his grand finale, the rest of the program promised some far more daring fare. But then perhaps “Andreas Scholl sings a bit of Vivaldi in amongst some Bach, Pärt and Schnittke” hasn’t got the same catchy ring about it.

The ACO were reduced to seven players for this intimate event, lead by Neal Peres da Costa on chamber organ. The concert opened with a short but spirited Vivaldi C Major concerto for strings – chosen to give the evening a feel of being bookended by the Venetian master, even if he didn’t feature throughout. What sorts the sheep from the goats, and in this case singles the ACO out as prime quality Australian lamb, is the passion and grace evident in their playing. Where others plod, these players skip and gambol. The five string players – Helena Rathbone and Rebecca Chan on violins, Christpher Moore on viola, Timo-Veikko Valke on cello and Maxime Bibeau on bass – formed a tight little band with Tommie Andersson on theorbo. A class act.

Jump forward two-and-a-half centuries and the rarity that followed was one of those pieces that audiences don’t always embrace wholeheartedly. Alfred Schnittke’s Third String Quartet is a spiny beast but one that commands the attention necessary to untangle its mysteries. Talk about polystylistic – within the first five minutes Schnittke quotes from Lassus’s Stabat Mater (spot the link), Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue and the famous DSCH musical signature of his compatriot Dmitri Shostakovich. It’s a hypnotic piece and the quartet of players were deeply inside the work – dynamic ad contemplative by turns – and tight as a drum in ensemble. Well worth an outing (although I heard more than one old curmudgeon on the way out muttering “I liked it all except the Schnittke.”

Andreas Scholl then appeared to sing two contemporary works by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt to close the first half. The male alto is a voice which has come intoits own in he last 30 to 40 years with many modern composers now offering repertoire to exploit its highly individual timbres. The first number, Pilgrim’s Song, was a lament for a departed friend and a setting of Psalm 121. The string quartet moves slowly but resolutely while the singer intones the text on pretty much a single note. This is about as austere as it gets and ranks as one of the least joyous settings of this inspiring text that I have heard – “the sun shall not smite thee by day nor the moon by night” surely deserves a little more passion. At least the austerity suited Scholl’s coolly Germanic approach and haunting tone.

The other Pärt piece was his setting of Brentano’s wistful poem of lost love, Es sang vor langen Jahren, and was an altogether more attractive affair. Violin and viola wove a folk inflected musical fabric over which Scholl floated his gorgeous instrument spinning out a melody of great beauty. A stunningly effective piece immaculately executed.

The second half began with the first four contrapuncti from The Art of Fugue played by five string players and chamber organ. Having heard Angela Hewitt’s rendition on Monday last it was like greeting an old friend. What struck me most, however, was how ‘modern’ Hewitt’s solo piano version sounded compared with the ACO ensemble, whose exquisitely blended, minimal-vibrato tones were redolent of an earlier age of consort music – almost a throwback to an age before JS Bach himself.

In a surprise change of program, Mr Scholl bounded on to announce a new work. Arvo Pärt’s Our Father was written for a boy soprano and piano to be performed earlier this year for Pope Benedict. Scholl, who’s heard the piece, had asked permission to arrange it and was clearly delighted when Pärt’s people sent him the composer’s own arrangement for male alto and strings a mere two days later. That delight was communicated to us in a reading of great warmth.

Finally the Vivaldi Stabat Mater received a fine performance from all concerned, especially the soloist whose smooth, effortless tone captured the tragedy of the text without recourse to any operatic histrionics. That object lesson in elegance was exhibited one last time with a signature rendition of Handel’s Ombra mai fu – or as Scholl quipped before hand, the aria where Xerxes says “was there ever a nicer tree to lie down under and have a nap?”

Andreas Scholl is touring nationally with the ACO until Octoer 9.