If one had idly wondered how a programme of English love songs, sung by a German, would be received by a Norwegian audience, in a wet and windy Bergen, the answer came loud and clear at this week's International Festival. Andreas Scholl is obviously as popular in Norway as he is in the UK and the concert was sold out months ago (more than once, apparently, judging by the cheerful Norwegian-style chaos sorting out twice-booked seats). Furthermore, he was in the best voice I have heard him for a while - when in the UK this winter, on both occasions he seemed dogged by a mild chest or throat infection, but he was back on cracking form and his unique, rich, clear voice had all the power and dynamic range one could wish for. The magnificent mediæval Håkenshallen was an ideal setting - high enough to give good acoustics but not so cavernous as to lose the sound in the rafters, and sufficiently wide that the audience was not too distant from the stage and therefore no concerns about voice projection.

© James McMillan / Decca
© James McMillan / Decca

Although Henry Purcell is rightly revered in Britain, it is not always clear that this endlessly-inventive English composer is appreciated widely in Europe, but his music has obviously crossed the North Sea and the Purcell set, starting with Music for a While and ending with O Solitude, was extremely well received by the knowledgeable audience. Andreas Scholl has been singing an extensive selection of Purcell's songs for the last year and he is a singer where familiarity with a song serves to increase his understanding, and hence enhances the experience for the listener, rather than a hint of monotony creeping in. This understanding was even more evident in the songs by John Dowland, two from the melancholic wing, both sung with grace and control which focussed attention on the sorrowful (the favoured emotion of the period). The third Dowland song, however, was his bright but bitter reflection on a woman resistant to love's charms Say, love. One of the delights of Dowland's music is that it can be sung by a whole range of voices; Mr Scholl has transposed Say, love quite high in his range giving it a floaty but urgent texture and it brought to the fore his under-rated penchant for light comedy - he can invest the single word "No" with more emotion, expression and range of meaning from anger to amusement than any other singer I know. But the switch of emotions was never more cleverly achieved than from Robert Campion's similarly light and amusing I care not for these ladies to Purcell's O Solitude, where Andreas Scholl's lengthy, perhaps resigned, discourse on loneliness was starkly painful to witness.

As the interval approached, we in the audience were put to work, joining in the refrain of Man is for the woman made, which nearly all the Norwegians knew as well as I did, answering at a stroke my question about Purcell's renown outside Britain.

The second half started with a trio from Handel; the first, often referred to as Handel's Largo, Ombra mai fu, being perhaps the aria more associated with Andreas Scholl than any other, and he with it. Often, he sings this as an encore, but hearing it in its rightful place in the concert programme gave added relevance. He must have sung it hundreds of times, but here it was as fresh and as light as the day it was written. It was followed by Dove sei, Bertarido's lament for his wife, whom he thinks lost to him, from Rodelinda. This was the piece that launched Mr Scholl's operatic career at Glyndebourne in 1998 when, according to contemporary accounts, time just seemed to stand still. Over two decades later, it did so again and augers well for his reprise of the role in New York in the autumn. The third Handel aria was the less well known Se parla nel mio cor from Gustino, but involved some technical fireworks and coloratura for the first time in the evening and, if nothing else, was a reminder that the Young Turks (Davies, Jaroussky, Ainslie etc.) still have some way to go to knock him off his top perch.

So far, so good but, for me, the surprising highlight of the evening was the set of songs from the Canzonette written in English by Joseph Haydn during his visits to London in the 1790's. Recollection in particular, was a gripping exposition on lost love, beautifully executed, and it will be difficult to imagine them sung in future by a tenor or baritone, so perfectly suited were they to this counter-tenor.

Mr Scholl's accompanist for the programme was harpsichordist/pianist Tamar Halperin (who is also his girlfriend, which must help with the logistics). Although clearly played by a highly competent harpsichordist, the instrument was not ideal for the first half, where a lute would have been better suited to most of the songs. But if the harpsichord didn't really add anything, it didn't detract much either and the situation reversed after the interval when, switching to the piano, the accompaniment came into its own and oddly enough worked almost as well for the Handel as for the Haydn.

The programme concluded with 3 folk songs which feature regularly in Andreas Scholl's recitals, but what was new (and a resounding triumph) was the simple but enchanting arrangements of Dr Halperin, which allowed the folk songs (and Mr Scholl) to do most of the work, but with the gentle instrumental support needed to prevent their becoming too stark.

An encore introduced us to a piece Mr Scholl was singing in public for the first time - a Brahms's folk song (All mein gedanken I think) - another example of his careful edging forward in time from the Baroque - and by the time it is fully worked up will prove a useful addition to his repertoire. But the capacity audience was not letting him away with just that and he duly obliged us, even after this quite lengthy recital, with the most heart-stopping rendition imaginable of O Lord, whose mercies numberless from Handel's oratorio Saul. A stunning end to a stunning tour de force.