A Fancy: Fantasy on English Airs & Tune

A Fancy: Fantasy on English Airs & Tune
Rachel Redmond, Le Caravansérail, Bertrand Cuiller
Harmonia Mundi. HMM 902296. 66’04

Rachel Redmond - A Fancy: Fantasy on English Airs & Tunes

This recording was released in September 2017, but I have only become aware of it, having heard a concert performance during the 2019 Tage Alter Musik Regensburg (reviewed here). As well as being a musically outstanding recording, with excellent singing from soprano Rachel Redmond and playing from Le Caravansérail, directed by Bertrand Cuiller, this is an intelligent way of presenting the music of the English Baroque era. Much of the music of the post-Restoration period (from the mid-17th century) was written for the theatre, where plays included lots of music to set the scene and provide interludes. The resulting pieces are often short, and can be difficult to programme into a concert setting. In this recording, Le Caravansérail has concocted what is, in effect, a five-act mini-opera taking samples of music for the theatre by composers such as Matthew Locke, Henry Purcell, John Blow to make a coherent and well-balanced whole.

Matthew Locke is the earliest of the composers represented. it was his use of music in plays, to escape the censors of the Puritan Commonwealth period, that led to the Restoration expectation of music in plays. For example, in 1659 Locke revived the masque Cupid and Death, adding music to that first composed by Christopher Gibbons for the first performance in 1654. This recording opens with Locke’s sensuous Curtain Tune to The Rare Theatrical. Each of the five parts of the recording reflects a particular mood, for example, the rather melancholic Part 2 which opens with Must I ever sigh in vain? by Giovanni Battista Draghi and ends with Purcell’s O Solitude – the singing of Rachael Redmond in the latter being one of the highlights of the recording. The livelier Part 3 includes Purcell’s Twas within a furlong of Edinboro’ town and Samuel Akeroyde From drinking of Sack by the Pottle. 

The approach of combining selections worked very well, not least in revealing the wealth of music from this period. Purcell is very well represented with extracts from the music to The Virtuous Wife, The Fairy Queen, The Theatre of Music, Abdelazar, The Mock Marriage, The History of Timon of Athens, and King Arther. Lesser known composers also get a chance for exposure in a programme like this. The instrumental accompaniments and solo pieces are interpreted with a degree of levity at times, notably in the jaunty Second Music, played on recorders. The key instrumentalists are Stéphan Dudermel, violin, Marine Sablonnière, recorder, Isabelle Saint Yves viola da gamba, and director Bertrand Cuiller, harpsichord.

Although Rachel Redmond occasionally has rather too much vibrato for my own taste, it is not unattractive in itself, and does not interfere with pitch or intonation. She manages to ornament the music without relying on vibrato, for example, in singing proper trills. Her impressive clarity and focused voice is ideal for the repertoire. Another highlight of her singing is Purcell’s See, even Night herself is here from The Fairy Queen.

This is a very welcome recording that will bring some little-known English music to a wider audience.