...at its best this curious but heartfelt disc is spine-tingling...
Matthew Shorter 2002
I'll confess I was predisposed to dislike this CD. The idea of taking a repertoire already compromised by its association with the Victorian parlour, shaking all the remaining mud from its boots, scrubbing it down and checking it in for the beauty treatment of a near-perfect Decca balance seemed instinctively wrong. But after my first sceptical hearing I found myself haunted by the limpid beauty of these songs and the crystalline balance of Andreas Scholl's counter-tenor with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's understated accompaniments.
By the third time round I was convinced. Any cynicism here was inside my own head - the commitment of Scholl and arranger and producer Craig Leon was palpable and infectious. Scholl is the leading counter-tenor of his generation, specialising in Baroque repertoire, but his feeling for the simplicity and clarity of this very different music suggests more than a passing affinity. Leon's arrangements - drawn from a full orchestra with percussion, lute, banjo, harp, harpsichord and dulcimer - are occasionally brilliant.
The title track, "I am a poor wayfaring stranger", in particular is beautiful, his sensitive use of single strings recalling Luciano Berio's economical folksong arrangements. Leon is most successful where he maintains this sparseness - "I will give my love an apple" and "The wife of Usher's Well". But the textures are often muddied by too many instruments, occasionally (as in "My love is like a red, red rose") overpowering Scholl's refined delivery. There's also an unfortunate tendency to try to intensify feeling verse by verse through the accumulation of texture, as in "Wild mountain thyme".
Scholl's penchant for storytelling occasionally tips over into burlesque. His pantomime duet between counter-tenor captain and baritone pirate in "Henry Martin" is hardly helped by the Borchester accent of the Scottish brigand, and it can be toe-curling to hear a classically trained voice enunciate tales of "Merrie Scot-lánd" and the "wraggle taggle gypsies, o!".
But at its best this curious but heartfelt disc is spine-tingling. And thanks to that Decca beauty treatment - a piercingly clear and immediate sound - and the professionalism of all involved, it is never less than interesting.