Out There; Counter Feat - Nothing Stirs the Soul More Than the Sound of a Countertenor. Andrew Preston Meets the Singer with a Magical Voice

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Barely suppressed sniggers are still a common reaction on first hearing the high-pitched voice of a male countertenor. All the more so when the sound is coming from the mouth of a 6ft 4in German.

But Andreas Scholl (pictured below) is one of the leading proponents of the art. Get over the initial shock and you will discover an astonishingly pure and powerful voice. Some countertenors sound like women. Scholl does not. He sounds more like a turbo-charged treble.

Wayfaring Stranger, his latest CD of melancholy folk songs, including old favourites such as My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, Blow the Wind Southerly and Barbara Allen, is magical and haunting.

'In the pop world, the voice is not a problem - just think of Jimmy Somerville,' says Scholl, speaking in his normal baritone voice. 'It's only in the classical world that it has been regarded as strange, which tells you something about classical music listeners and their level of tolerance.'

High-pitched male voices are not a new phenomenon. The countertenor was common in the 17th and 18th centuries, having grown out of a church tradition forbidding women from singing in choirs.

They are not to be confused with the castrato, the male soprano whose voice was preserved courtesy of an operation before puberty. That, too, came from the church, where the authorities would often turn a blind eye to the gruesome practice. Castrati such as Farinelli and Senesino made a fortune and became the opera superstars of their day. (For the record, castrati were not quite as mutilated as we might think. They could still have sex, but couldn't reproduce - the operation involved a snip to the vas deferens which, as the saying goes, made a vast difference.) Scholl, now 34, remains fully intact. He started singing as a seven-year-old, alongside his grandfather, father, brother and two sisters in his church choir in Kiedrich in Germany.

His voice broke at the age of 13, but while his speaking voice deepened he found that he had the rare talent of still being capable of singing as a boy treble. …