Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Purcell: A man of the theatre

Music for the theatre takes an important place in Henry Purcell's oeuvre. Today his only opera, Dido and Aeneas, is regularly performed and recorded. In comparison, his semi-operas are lesser known, although they are certainly not neglected. Songs from these works are well-known and part of solo recitals. They were already popular in Purcell's own time, which explains why they were separately published in the collection Orpheus Britannicus.

Complete performances of the semi-operas in our time are extremely rare. According to New Grove, a semi-opera is "[a] play with four or more separate episodes or masques which include singing, dancing, instrumental music and spectacular scenic effects". The inclusion of the spoken text would result in a performance lasting about four hours. Moreover, a complete performance would only make sense if it would be staged, which is rather complicated. It is also questionable how many in an audience, even if they are all native English speakers, would really comprehend the texts of the original play. Today, most performers confine themselves to the musical items from Purcell's pen. Sometimes they include a spoken synopsis, which explains the story to the audience. That may make some sense in a live performance, but would be rather useless in a commercial recording, also because of the language. No wonder that both recordings reviewed here omit any narritive.

The Fairy Queen is based on a libretto by an anonymous author, which is an adaptation of the play A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare. It is divided into five acts, preceded by First Music and Second Music, consisting of two instrumental pieces each, and an overture. This piece includes much diversity in forms and scorings, and it was one of the main concerns of Sébastien d'Hérin to create some sort of coherence. "I have wanted to be able to demonstrate that feeling of diversity and of exuberance which I have experienced myself, as well as the work's importance and stature which, I like to think, must have been so eminently evident at the time." It is inevitable that performers take differente decisions, but one would hope that these are all within the boundaries of what is historically tenable. Unfortunately d'Hérin has crossed that line.

The very first piece, the prelude which opens the First Music, is preceded by a solo of the timpani. That is already a bad omen. It is especially with regard to the instrumental scoring that d'Hérin has taken decisions which are debatable at least, and sometimes simply wrong. Purcell's scoring includes two recorders, two oboes, two trumpets, strings, timpani and basso continuo. For unknown reasons, d'Hérin added a cornett and a harp. His ensemble also includes two cellos, a double bass, a regal and an organ. The use of cellos is very questionable, as these instruments were anything but common in Purcell's time. The double bass was never used in Purcell's music. Why a regal was used, is anybody's guess. The entire ensemble is also rather large, including seven violins and two violas.

The decisions regarding the vocal line-up make much more sense. The choral sections are sung by the soloists, and this may well be in line with the performance practice in Purcell's time. "In this score, there is no actual 'role', strictly-speaking [sic], nor any extended musical narrative. One is called upon to highlight a succession of arias and of dissimilar but demanding playlets; little in the way of the psychology of singing characters exists. My choices have thus focused on what I was able to see and understand from among all these loyal and dedicated artists: their personality, their individuality, their strength and their character." No problems here.

What about the actual performance? The decisions regarding the instrumental line-up may be controversial, but that in itself does not prevent a musically satisfying performance. However, that is not the case, I'm afraid. The inclusion of instruments like the cornett and the regal has pretty disastrous effects. The 'Dance of the Followers of the Night' at the end of Act Two is destroyed by the use of the regal. Moreover, here as elsewhere the strings include exaggerated dynamic accents, which are out of place in English music. In The Plaint (O let me weep), the obbligato violin part is played on the cornett, which is highly unsatisfying, for instance with regard to the balance between the soprano and the instrumental part. The cornett just attracts too much attention at the cost of the vocal part. Too often d'Hérin uses percussion, for instance in the chaconne at the end of Act Five. For some reason not discussed in the liner-notes, this piece - the Dance for the Chinese Man and Woman - is placed at the end of the work, after the chorus 'They shall be as happy', which in Purcell's score closes this work.

The singing does not give much reason for joy. Most singers use too much vibrato; Anders Dahlin is the only exception, and he is by far the best of the singers. Samuel Boden does also reasonably well. The Plaint is one of the highlights of this work, but it is destroyed here, not only due to the inclusion of a cornett, but also to Caroline Mutel's wide vibrato. However, the worst part of this recording is her performance of 'Hark! The echoing air', in which she adds some extravagant ornaments, as we are used to hear in a bad performance of a Handel opera. On a positive note: some of the singers are French, but their English pronunciation is surprisingly good. I hardly need to say here that the pronunciation is not historical; that is still the exception in performances of English music of the Renaissance and baroque periods.

King Arthur was first performed in 1691 at the Queen's Theatre, Dorset Garden, in London in 1691. The libretto was written by John Dryden and is about the battles between King Arthur - about whom many legends have been woven - and the Saxons. This semi-opera exactly shows why a performance of Purcell's music alone can never be entirely satisfying from a dramatic point of view. The title character is a spoken role, and as a result King Arthur is nowhere to be seen or heard in Purcell's music. It is well summed up in the article on King Arthur in Wikipedia: "King Arthur is a "dramatick opera" or semi-opera: the principal characters do not sing, except if they are supernatural, pastoral or, in the case of Comus and the popular Your hay it is mow'd, drunk. Secondary characters sing to them, usually as diegetic entertainment, but in Act 4 and parts of Act 2, as supernatural beckonings."

There is one similarity between the performances of King Arthur by Vox Luminis and The Fairy Queen by Les Nouveaux Caractères. Like in the latter, the choruses in King Arthur are sung by the soloists. Their number is about the same: twelve and thirteen respectively. But that is where the similarity ends. The instrumental ensemble is much smaller: only two violins and one viola, plus recorders, oboes, bassoon, trumpets and percussion. There are no cellos and no double bass; the string bass is here a bass violin, which is much more in line with the performance practice in Purcell's time. There are no instruments which Purcell did not require.

I have heard Vox Luminis twice with this work. The first time was a concertante performance at the 2015 Festival Early Music Utrecht, the second time a scenic performance during the Purcell Day in Utrecht in 2018. At the latter occasion I did not get the impression that the singers are born actors, but undoubtedly these performances in different settings have helped them to find the right approach for a recording of this work. In the scenic live performance an actor recited a text which informed the audience about the story. That has been rightly omitted here. The synopsis in the booklet can be considered a compensation for it, although it could have been a little more extensive.

I very much enjoyed both live performances, and it was not any different this time. Considering the quality of this performance it is almost impossible to mention some highlights, as this recording is full of them. Let me point out some particularly fine moments. Robert Buckland gives an excellent account of the part of the British Warrior (Act I: Come if you dare). 'Hither, this way' (Act 2) is exquisitely sung by Caroline Weynants. Olivier Berten delivers a refined performance of 'How blest are shepherds' (Act 2). Zsuzsi Tóth and Stefanie True are a perfect match in 'Shepherd, shepherd, leave decoying' (Act 2). The former is at her very best in the air 'Fairest isle' (Act 5). Sebastian Myrus does well as the frozen Genius. The staccato in his air could probably have been a little sharper. The only small disappointment is Sophie Junker, who uses a bit too much vibrato in the part of Cupid; she makes a better impression in the part of Honour in Act 5. One of this recording's assets is also the instrumental playing. Here all the exaggerations of Les Nouveaux Caractères have been avoided. There is no excessive use of percussion, and there are neither exaggerated dynamic accents nor extremely fast tempi. The whole piece has a nice and natural flow.

This is an impressive and highly enjoyable recording of one of Purcell's theatrical masterpieces. It would be nice if Vox Luminis would turn its attention to other theatre music by Purcell. What about The Fairy Queen?

Purcell: The Fairy Queen (Z 629)
Caroline Mutel, Virginie Pochon, Hjördis Thébault (soprano), Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo-soprano), Christophe Baska (alto), Samuel Boden, Anders Dahlin, Julien Picard (tenor), Guillaume Andrieux, Kevin Greenlaw (baritone), Ronan Nédélec (bass-baritone), Frédéric Caton (bass), Les Nouveaux Caractères/Sébastien d'Hérin
Recorded September 2016 at the Théâtre Laurent Terzieff - Ensatt, Lyon, France DDD
Texts included
Cover, track-list & booklet
Glossa - GCD 922702 (2 CDs) [2.03'52"]

Purcell: King Arthur (Z 628)
Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
Recorded January 2018 at AMUZ, Antwerp, Belgium DDD
Texts included
Cover, track-list & booklet
Alpha - 430 (2 CDs) [1.37'59"]