Sweeter than Roses: Songs by Henry Purcell

Sweeter than Roses
Songs by Henry Purcell
Anna Dennis, soprano
Sounds Baroque, Julian Perkins
Resonus Classics RES10235.. 67’33

Henry Purcell is one of the greatest composers of English vocal music, with his ability to tease out the depths of meaning in mere words through his sensitive melodic and harmonic skills. Publisher Henry Playford’s preface to Orpheus Britannicus sums this talent up perfectly when he describes Purcell’s “extraordinary Talent in all sorts of Musick is sufficiently known, but he was especially admir’d for the Vocal, having a peculiar Genius to express the energy of English Words, whereby he mov’d the Passions of all his Auditors“. Another commentator, Henry Hall, organist of Hereford Cathedral, describes this well in his prefatory poem to Orpheus Britannicus when he mentions “Each syllable first weigh’d, or short, or long, / That it might too be Sense, as well as Song”. These contemporary descriptions of Purcell’s skill at setting words to music are at the heart of this recording, with Bruce Wood’s and Julian Perkin’s excellent programme notes (which includes the above quotes) giving specific examples of Purcell’s art as well as setting Purcell’s so-very-English music in the context of the musical style of the rest of Europe that so clearly influenced him. Continue reading

LPO Isle of Noises: Handel & Purcell

Isle of Noises
London Philharmonic Orchestra
The Schütz Choir, Sir Roger Norrington
Royal Festival Hall, 30 January 2019

Handel: Suites from The Water Music 
Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

The London Philharmonic Orchestra opened their year-long series Isle of Noises (a celebration of British music) with a concert that, by all the normal conventions of concert programming over the past 50 years or so, shouldn’t have happened. Since the early music period-instrument revolution, and as the pioneering work of the early period specialists took root, most traditional orchestras took fright and stopped performing any music from Mozart or before. Gone were the days of a Mozart concerto opening a concert that would finish with Mahler. In recent years, some of those same early music specialists have enthused modern instrument players and orchestras, by far the most prominent being Sir Roger Norrington, perhaps most notably for his work with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Continue reading

Purcell: King Arthur

Purcell: King Arthur
Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier
Alpha Classics. Alpha 430. 2CDs 57’41+40’18

It is often assumed that English opera started with Handel, and missed out on the entire 17th-century development of opera. This is probably due to that very English concept of semi-opera, with musical bits and bobs inserted into a play, with the music based around the supporting cast, rather than the key personnel.  Although, some of the famous bits from Purcell are known but, apart from Dido and Aeneas, we rarely hear the complete music of The Fairy Queen or King Arther. Rarer still is a performance that includes the spoken text of the plays in which the music was performed. I remember the bemused looks on Glyndebourne faces as their Fairy Queen opened with around 45 minutes of spoken text. This outstanding recording, from the distinguished Belgian consort Vox Luminis and their director Lionel Meunier will help to bring more attention to the world of 17th-century English semi-opera. Musically, King Arthur is gorgeous, Dryden’s text creating several moments for Purcell to weave his magic with. Continue reading

Baroque at the Edge

Baroque at the Edge
Saint James, Clerkenwell, St Luke’s Old Street
Saturday 6 January 2019

Imagine.jpg

With a headline of “Imagine if Bach was a jazzman, Purcell a folk-fiddler, or Monteverdi a minimalist…”, the second annual Baroque at the Edge festival made a fitting opening to the 2019 London musical calendar. Founded in 2018 by Lindsay Kemp and Lucy Bending, the team behind the London Festival of Baroque Music and the earlier Lufthansa Festival, the festival invites musicians with a classical, jazz, or folk background to “take the music of the Baroque and see where it leads them” with the promise of “No rules, no programme notes, no lectures: all you need to know is how to listen”. The festival was spread over a three day weekend, with most of the events taking place on Saturday, 6 January, after a Friday night piano recital and before a Sunday family folksinging workshop and linked lunchtime concert. Continue reading

Purcell: The Fairy Queen

Purcell: The Fairy Queen
Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh

St John’s, Smith Square. 1 November 2018

The Gabrieli Consort and Players could probably perform The Fairy Queen in their sleep, such is their experience of Purcell’s music, and this particular work, over many years. They have performed it at the BBC Proms, the Barbican, the Spitalfields Festival and many other venues around the world. They now plan to record it, along with King Arthur, early in the New Year, with the same forces as appeared in this St John’s, Smith Square performance. Their crowdfunding campaign page can be found here.

One of the continuing successes of the Gabrieli’s and their director Paul McCreesh is their ability to reinvent themselves and to continually question and push boundaries in their approach to their music making. For this particular recording (and this concert) they stress that “Gabrieli also brings a forensic understanding of contemporaneous performance techniques to this repertoire, including a new bow hold for string players which transforms articulation and influences tempi; wind instruments using more basic, coarser reeds, for a more martial sound; and natural trumpets performing on instruments without holes, playing entirely through the adjustment of embouchure – a high wire act!“. This was also the premiere of a new performing edition, prepared by McCreesh and Christopher Suckling, their principal bass violinist. It was performed at the low ‘French’ pitch of 392Hz and the violins played using French bow holds.  If this suggests an academic approach to music making, the experience of this concert proved to be anything but. It was a compelling and exuberant performance, semi-staged, albeit with only one ‘prop’ – in the shape of an enormous bleached-white wig for Mopsa, aka Charles Daniels. Continue reading

Academy of Ancient Music: Dido and Aeneas

Dido and Aeneas
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr, Thomas Guthrie
The Barbican, 2 October 2018

For anybody who was not already familiar with the story of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the Academy of Ancient Music’s semi-staged performance (directed by Thomas Guthrie) at The Barbican opened with something of a plot-spoiler. The first half was a 40-minute exploration of the funeral rites of the dead Dido, albeit a couple of hours or more before she was ‘laid in earth’. Actually, laid in earth she wasn’t, instead lying on a funeral catafalque over which Belinda, Aeneas and assorted mourners (the AAM chorus, who opened the show with some rhythmic drum bashing) acted out their reaction to her death as they remembered her. And when I write ‘she’ in fact it was a half-size puppet of the upper half of Dido who represented her throughout the evening. The full panoply of puppets came to the fore in the second half performance of Dido and Aeneas itself where the entire cast of soloists and chorus sported puppets – torsos for Dido and Aeneas, heads and gauze cloths for the rest. Continue reading

BBC Prom 26: Serpent and Fire

Serpent and Fire
Il Giardino Armonico, Anna Prohaska
Royal Albert Hall. 2 August 2018 

Serpent and Fire is probably a better concert title that ‘Two Suicidal African Queens’, but Anna Prohaska’s exploration of the musical characters of Dido and Cleopatra certainly delved the emotional issues that caused both Queen’s demise. Despite her plea to ‘forget my fate’, Dido’s end is etched in all music-lovers minds, and it closed this late-night BBC Prom. Purcell’s Ah! Belinda providing the opening, introducing the Anna Prohaska’s beautifully clear and pure voice, and her use of the gentlest of vocal inflexions, quite correctly, as an ornament, for which I will readily forgive her the occasional tendency to slightly slur notes together. She later joined the very rare catalogue of early music singers who can produce a proper trill, rather than just relying on vibrato. The curious pauses in Ah! Belinda were the first of a number of directorial oddities provided by conductor Giovanni Antonini.

Anna Prohaska.jpg

Continue reading

Purcell and Michael Nyman

Purcell & Michael Nyman
Iestyn Davies & Fretwork
Milton Court, 28 May 2018

Michael Nyman: No Time in Eternity
Purcell: Two Fantazies in four parts; Music for a While
Michael Nyman: Music after a While (world premiere)
Purcell: An Evening Hymn
Michael Nyman: Balancing the Books; The Diary of Anne Frank: If; Why
Purcell; Fantazy in four parts; Fantazy upon one note
Michael Nyman: Self-laudatory hymn of Inanna and her omnipotence

Many early music period instrument groups play and commission contemporary works, but the viol consort Fretwork is one of the most active in this field, with over 40 commissions over their 32-year life. Their latest commission is from Michael Nyman with Music after a While, an instrumental response to Purcell’s Music for a While, and given it’s world premiere during this concert. Early music, and particularly the compositions of Purcell, have been life-long influences on Nyman, as reflected for example, in his Purcell-inspired score for the film The Draughtsman’s Contract. A student of Thurston Dart, Nyman’s early career including editing Purcell and Handel, and his performing band combined period and modern instruments. He has worked many times before with Fretwork. Continue reading

Ceruleo: Paradise Lost

Ceruleo: Paradise Lost
Guildhall Artist Fellowship Recital
Music Hall, Guildhall School of Music and Drama. 10 July 2017

The five-strong group Ceruleo (two sopranos, cello, theorbo, and harpsichord) got together at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2014. They have just completed a one year Artist Fellowship there, the first time a this has been awarded to a group. During their year, they gave several performances of their programme ‘Deplorable Fire’ commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, including a live performance on BBC Radio 3. They presented their Paradise Lost programme, based on John Milton’s poem (published 350 years ago in 1667) as their final recital of their Fellowship year. The music was interspersed by extracts from Paradise Lost. Continue reading

SJSS: Holy Week Festival

Siglo de Oro & New London Singers
St John’s, Smith Square: 
Holy Week Festival. 15 April 2017

WP_20170415_12_49_34_Pro (2).jpgThe St John’s, Smith Square Holy Week Festival (also reviewed here and here) concluded with a vocal workshop and lunchtime concert with Siglo de Oro and an evening concert from the New London Singers. The morning workshop was led by Patrick Allies, director of Siglo de Oro, and focussed on Bach’s motet Jesu meine freude, giving useful insights into the structure, text and musical contents of this most complex piece. Siglo de Oro’s lunchtime concert sandwiched this piece between two shorter meditative pieces by Purcell Hear my Prayer, and Remember not, Lord, our offences, concluding with Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater a 10.  Continue reading

O Sing unto the Lord

O Sing unto the Lord
Sacred music by Henry Purcell
Saint Thomas Choir, New York, Concert Royal, John Scott
Resonus RES10184. 54’03

O sing unto the Lord, Z44; Remember not, Lord, Z50; Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei, Z135; Evening Hymn, Z193; O God, thou art my God, Z35; Morning Hymn, Z198; I was glad, Z19; Hear my prayer, O Lord, Z15; Voluntary in G major, Z720; Te Deum in D major, Z232.

Following on from their recent issues of Bach and Rachmaninoff, Resonus continue their series of recordings from the Saint Thomas Choir, New York, under their conductor, the late John Scott, with this release of a 2010 recording of Purcell. The well-balanced programme includes major works for choir and orchestra, such as the substantial opening O sing unto the Lord, as well as more intimate pieces such as the Morning and Evening Hymns, here separated by the early anthem O God, thou art my God with its famous Hallelujah, later turned into the hymn Westminster Abbey. This amply demonstrated the extraordinary range of Purcell’s musical style and his harmonic inventiveness. Continue reading

Love & Lust

Love & Lust
Elizabeth Hungerford, soprano, Andrew Arceci, viola da gamba
No record label noted. Ref: 8 89211 78745. 56’42

All in a Garden Green (Anonymous – 16th century)
She Loves It Well (Tobias Hume – 1579-1645)
Chi passa per ‘sta strada (Filippo Azzaiolo – 1530/40-1569)
Touch Me Lightly (Tobias Hume – 1579-1645)
Amarilli mia bella (Giulio Romolo Caccini – 1551-1618)
Amarilli Variations (Modo 2, 3, And 4) (Jacob Van Eyck- 1590-1657)
Joy to the Person of My Love (Anonymous – 17th century)
Canzonetta Spirituale sopra alla nanna (Tarquinio Merula – 1594/95-1665)
Death (Tobias Hume – 1579-1645)
Life (Tobias Hume – 1579-1645)
Prelude (E Minor) – (Christopher Simpson – 1602/06-1669)
I Attempt from Love’s Sickness (Henry Purcell – 1659-1695)
Beauty, Since You so Much Desire (Thomas Campion – 1567-1620)
Tobacco (Tobias Hume – 1579-1645)
1Quel sguardo sdegnosetto (Claudio Monteverdi – 1567-1643)

Love and LustThis CD was recorded in 2013 and appears to have been available as a download, but was issued as a CD in 2014 or 15. It appears to be self-produced, as there is no record label mentioned, although the bar code number listed above is searchable. The CD liner notes give translations of the texts, but not strictly in the order of the tracks. No track or total timings are given, which might limit its use for broadcasters. There is a brief note about the two performers, but no other information about the programme or the background to the pieces. But there is a full page listing of some 150 people who “the artists wish to thank” – presumably the result of a crowdfunding campaign.

All that merely reflects that performers have to start somewhere, and self-producing and self-promoting is pretty much standard nowadays. What is important is what you get if you can get hold of this CD. And that is a far more professional offering Continue reading

James Gilchrist Directs: Bach and Purcell

James Gilchrist Directs: Bach and Purcell
Academy of Ancient Music
James Gilchrist, Pavlo Beznosiuk, Rachel Brown
Milton Court, 19 October 2016

The Academy of Ancient Music’s 2016-17 London and Cambridge concert series features two occasions when guest directors are being invited to plan programmes and direct the orchestra. The first of these was with the tenor, James Gilchrist. Renowned as a Bach performer (most notably in the role of Evangelist in the Passions) Gilchrist has been a regular soloist with the AAM. After a musical grounding as a boy chorister at New College, Oxford and a choral scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge, Gilchrist helped to pay his way through the rest of his medical training by singing in professional choirs such as The Sixteen, Tallis scholars and Cardinall’s Musick. He moved from his earlier career as a doctor to become a full-time musician twenty years ago.

On this occasion, the word ‘curator’ rather than ‘director’ is more appropriate. Gilchrist selected the vocal works from Purcell and the two Bach cantatas, handing over to the AAM’s leader, violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, to select Continue reading

Fitzwilliam & Friends: Purcell + Pergolesi +

Fitzwilliam & Friends: Purcell + Pergolesi +
Fitzwilliam String Quartet, Julia Doyle, Clare Wilkinson
Kings Place. 29 September 2016

Music by Purcell, Marcus Barcham Stevens, Jackson Hill, Rachel Stott, and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater

Image result for julia doyle sopranoKings Place’s 2016 ‘Baroque Unwrapped’ series continued with a fascinating combination of musical styles performed by the period instrument Fitzwilliam String Quartet together with their ‘Friends’, soprano Julia Doyle (pictured) and mezzo Clare Wilkinson, two of the finest singers around, with Laurence Cummings, harpsichord and organ. They opened collectively with three groups of pieces selected from Purcell’s Fairy Queen, King Arthur, and Dido and Aeneas. Julia Doyle and Clare Wilkinson were outstanding soloists in piece such as If Love’s a Sweet Passion’, The Plaint, Fairest Isle and Dido’s Lament. I was particularly impressed with Julia Doyle’s beautiful singing and her excellent use of ornaments: she is one of the few singers who can manage a proper trill, rather than just relying on vibrato.

With the departure of the ‘friends’, the Fitzwilliam Quartet continued with Purcell’s Fantazia 7 followed by three of the specially commissioned Continue reading

BBC Proms at …: Purcell and his contemporaries

BBC Proms at …: Purcell and his contemporaries
Katherine Watson, Samual Boden, Callum Thorpe
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, 13 August

Purcell: Timon of Athens – Curtain Tune, I Spy Celia, I See She Flies Me, The Fairy Queen (excerpts), The Tempest (attrib. Purcell); Blow: Venus and Adonis (excerpts); Locke: The Tempest – Curtain Tune, The Tempest – Dance of the Fantastick Spirits (perhaps by Draghi).

As part of their ‘Proms at …’’ season, the BBC decanted from its usual home in the Royal Albert Hall to one of the most intimate performances spaces in London, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of the Shakespeare’s Globe complex on the South Bank. Since its opening in 2014, this reconstruction of a typical Jacobean (early 17th century) theatre has housed a number of excellent (and sold-out) musical events and small-scale operas, adding considerably to the range of London music venues. Sadly, under Sam Wannamaker.jpgthe new Globe management, those events seems to have ground to a halt, with only one listed in the current season – and that a hang-over booking from the previous management. So it was fortuitous that the BBC Proms chose the theatre for one of its ‘BBC at …’ events (alongside such venues as a multi-story car park in Peckham), not least because it enabled people to see the inside of this fabulous, but very uncomfortable, theatre for just £14, rather than the up to £62 the Globe are asking for their own next concert there. Continue reading

Fretwork: Passacaille

Passacaille
Fretwork
Kings Place, 12 February 2016

JS Bach Piece d’Orgue, Contrapunctus 7, Passacaglia; Purcell: Chaconny; Charpentier: Concert pour les violes; Marini Passacalio; Legrenzi Sonata Sesta, Sonata Quinta; Forqueray: Pieces a trois violes; Handel: Passacaille.

Reiko Ichise

The viol consort repertoire took a long time to lie down and die. From its prime in the early years of the 17th century, its decline took different forms in different countries. Most countries retained the bass viol as a continuo instrument, with France (and, to a certain extent, Germany) developing a repertoire for solo bass viol. Italy had long since concentrated on the violin rather than the viol family. In England it was Purcell who briefly rescued the viol consort from its death throes with his remarkable late-flowering Fantasias c1680. But there were also other late-flowerings in France and Italy from the likes of Charpentier, Forqueray and Legrenzi.

In their Kings Place concert, the viol consort Fretwork explored some of these late examples of viol consort music in their programme ‘Passacaille’, the concert title giving a clue as to the nature of several of the pieces. They also ‘borrowed’ the music of Bach and Handel to add another theme their programme. They opened with Bach and a transcription of the central part of his Pièce d’Orgue (Fantasia in G minor: BWV572) Continue reading

Armonico Consort – Dido & Aeneas

Dido & Aeneas
Spitalfields Festival. Armonico Consort
Village Underground, 9 June 2015

I’m not sure if the ‘alternative’ venue of Village Underground (with old London underground trains, converted into artist’s studios, on the roof) was the ideal venue for this performance of Dido & Aeneas, not WP_20150513_20_23_47_Proleast given the nature of Armonico Consort’s rather staid production. It was also singularly unwise of director Christopher Monks to tell us all in his introductory talk that we would have “never seen a performance like this before”. I am still not quite sure what he meant by that remark, but it kept me waiting for something special or unusual to happen – which it didn’t. His comment did turn out to be true, in a way, but not in the way that I think he intended. Continue reading

Purcell & Charpentier: Te Deum

Schola Cantorum of Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School
Spiritato!  Iestyn Davies
St John’s, Smith Square. 29 April 2015

Purcell: Suite from Abdelazer, Jehova Quam Multi Sunt Hostes Mei, Te Deum and Jubilate in D. Rameau: Suite from Les Indes Galantes, Charpentier: Te Deum

I wouldn’t normally review a concert given by a boys’ school choir, but the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School is well-known for their music education and performances.  The Schola Cantorum supports the liturgy of the school services, but is better known as one of the few school choirs that are regularly called upon for professional engagements. These have ranged from the Harry Potter films to a recent live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of James MacMillan’s complex St Luke Passion. Individual boy singers are also often to be heard at Covent Garden and the Coliseum.

Continue reading

Purcell/Sellars – The Indian Queen. English National Opera

Peter Sellars has done it again!  Although billed as “Purcell’s” Indian Queen, the latest in his radical reinterpretations of opera is really Peter Sellars’ Indian Queen, the plot completely re-imagined as a vehicle for Sellars’ political and social views.   This spectacular production left me more conflicted than many Sellars’ shows that I have seen.  As a pure performance extravaganza, it certainly worked well. But in order for it to work, you needed to suppress any sense of history or musical integrity.

With his spiky lavatory-brush hair and right-on approach to contemporary politics, this impish and oh-so-American director has always taken a cavalier approach to opera, imposing his own views on whatever plot the composer might have chosen.  His latest London production, notionally based on Purcell’s The Indian Queen (English National Opera, 26 Feb), is one of the most extreme examples of this approach, not least because he has jettisoned the text entirely and replaced it with spoken text of his own choosing – principally extracts from the novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by the Nicaraguan author Rosario Aguilar.  Aguilar’s novel aims to “recapture the woman’s view of the conquest and colonisation of Central America through the lives of six women who participated in the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians”. The historical setting has been changed from the years before the Spanish conquest of Central America (and a conflict between the kings of Peru and Mexico) to a post-conquest scenario where the brutality of the Spanish invaders is intermixed with a curious love story between Teculihuatzin (the Mayan Indian Queen) and Don Pedro de Alvarado, one of the conquistadors.

The music is based on Purcell’s unfinished ‘semi opera’ The Indian Queen, original intended as incidental music to Dryden’s play. It was first performed in 1695 in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, a few months before Purcell’s death. Only about 50 minutes of Purcell’s survives, consisting of a series of musical interludes at the end of each act, never quite achieving the status of typical late 17th century ‘masques’.  The music is difficult to programme in concerts – a 50 minute series of seemingly unrelated short pieces of very different temperaments and moods.  But Purcell’s music has the ability to delve into unbearably intense emotional depths, so it deserves to be heard far more than it is.

To that extent, Sellars has done Purcell’s music a service, in that it gets performed.  This is a co-production between ENO and the Russian Perm State Opera and the Teatro Real, Madrid, and had been performed in both places, to varying degrees of success, before its London opening.  To turn it into a full length (indeed, an over-long) opera, Sellars has added other music by Purcell, sacred and secular.   Not content with the new post-conquest story, Sellars’ opens at the beginning of time, Mayan style, with five scenes from Mayan creation myths, with dancing to a backdrop of what was supposed to be jungle noise, but was in practice rather uncomfortable white-noise broadcast rather too loudly from loudspeakers.  We were sent out for the interval with an almost cartoon-style massacre and rivers of blood, all to the accompaniment of ‘Hear my Prayer, O Lord’.  Not surprisingly, this didn’t go down too well in Madrid.  Sellars’ trademark mannered infant-class gestures featured in many of the chorus’s actions – something I have never got used.

The staging, lighting, costumes and the large painted panels were all bold and impressive.  And the music was outstanding, with generally excellent singing from the youthful soloists. Lucy Crowe excelled as Doña Isabel, notably in O Solitude and See, even night herself is here.  Bass Luthando Qave impressed as a Mayan Shaman, as did Noah Stewart as Don Pedro de Alvarado.  Vince Yi (Hunahpú) is billed as a countertenor, but his voice had the timbre of a male soprano.  Luisa Julia Bullock (as Teculihuatzin/Doña Luisa) displayed far too much uncontrolled vibrato for my taste and for Purcell’s music, although she impressed in her late duet O Lord, rebuke me not with Lucy Crowe. The text was extremely well declaimed by actress Maritxell Carrero, portrayed as Leonor, the daughter of Teculihuatzin and Don Pedro, and therefore of mixed race; something key to the text.

Laurence Cummings directed the ENO house band, most playing modern instruments, but showing just how far they have come in recent year to understanding period performance – something that Cummings must take much of the responsibility and credit for.  The orchestra was lifted to almost stage level, making them visible to most of the audience.  An unfortunately un-named specialist period instrument continuo group deserved the special applause they got at the end.  Laurence Cummings got into the mood of Sellars’ directorial style, pushing the music to its limits albeit always within his own deep understanding of period style.  Notable were several moments when he paused, mid phrase, producing very effective dramatic moments.  My only musical quibble was with the chorus, whose unadulterated vibrato I would have found excessive in Wagner.  I know that is just what they might have had to sing the following evening, and that it is hard to rein in vibrato, but unless they can do it I do wonder if bringing a specialist choir might be a solution to what is, too often, an ENO issue.

I always approach Sellars productions with a degree of trepidation, as this evening was no exception. But, despite everything arguing against it, I quickly got into the spectacular of the production and the curious story. Yes, it was too long, but the music was something special.  I tried not to like it, but just couldn’t.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/04/01/purcellsellars-the-indian-queen-english-national-opera/]