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Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695): Vocal and instrumental music

[I] "Serenading Songs & Grounds"
Hana Blaziková, Céline Scheen, soprano; Paulin Bündgen, alto; Jan Van Elsacker, tenor; Stephen MacLeod, bass
Ensemble La Fenice
Dir: Jean Tubéry
rec: May 2009, Saligny, Eglise Saint-Laurent; Oct 2009, Saint Brieuc, Cathédrale; July 2010, Uzès, Cathédrale St-Théodorit
Ars Produktion - ARS 38 525 (© 2014) (54'49")
Liner-notes: E/F/D; lyrics - translations: D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

A New Ground in e (Z 682); A New Irish Tune in G (Z 646); Ground in Gamut in G (Z 645); Hark, how the wild musicians sing (Z 542); How pleasant is this flow'ry plain (Z 543); King Arthur (Z 628) (Fairest Isle; Hornpipe); Oedipus, King of Thebes (Z 583) (Music for a while); Soft notes and gently rais'd accent (Z 510); Sonata VI a 3 in C (Z 795); The Tempest (Z 631) (No stars again shall hurt you); Three parts upon a Ground in F (Z 731); Voluntary on the Old Hundredth (Z 721) (attr)

Jean Tubéry, recorder, cornett; Katharina Heutjer, recorder, violin; Clémentine Humeau, oboe; Anais Chen, violin; Martin Bauer, viola da gamba; Ulrike Brütt, Elisa Joglar, cello; Krzysztof Lewandowski, bassoon; Juan Sebastian Lima, theorbo, guitar; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord; Luca Guglielmi, harpsichord, organ; David Van Bouwel, organ

[II] "How pleasant 'tis to Love!"
Scherzi Musicali
Dir: Nicolas Achten
rec: August 1 - 4, 2012, Brussels, Flagey (Studio 4)
Alpha - 192 (© 2013) (73'57")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

A Ground in d (Z D222); A New Ground in e (Z T682); Ah! how pleasant 'tis to love! (Z 353); An Evening Hymn (Z 193); Come, ye sons of art, away (Z 323) (Strike the Viol); Don Quixote (Z 578) (From rosie bow'rs); O Solitude, my sweetest choice (Z 406); Ode for St Cecilia's Day (Z 328) (In vain the am'rous flute; 'Tis nature's voice) Oedipus, King of Thebes (Z 583) (Music for a while); Pausanias, the Betrayer of his Country (Z 585) (Sweeter than Roses); Round O in d (Z T684); Suite in d (Z 668) (almand; corant; hornpipe); Suite in a (Z 663) (prelude); The Fairy Queen (Z 629) (O let me weep 'The Plaint'); The Indian Queen (Z 630) (Seek not to know; They tell us that your mighty powers); The old batchelor (Z 603) (Hornpipe in e); The Prophetess, or the History of Dioclesian (Z 627) (Still I'm wishing); Who can from joy refrain (Z 335) (Ah, how happy are we; Sound the trumpet)

Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenor; Nicolas Achten, baritone, harp, virginal; Lambert Colson, Laura Pok, recorder; Justin Glaie, viola da gamba; Simon Linné, theorbo; Solmund Nystabakk, guitar

Henry Purcell was not only a prolific but also a very versatile composer. He contributed to almost any genre of his time: instrumental chamber music, keyboard works, solo songs, music for the theatre, liturgical pieces and large-scale works for special occasions of the state and the monarchy. If you want to present a musical portrait of such a composer, what to choose? Jean Tubéry and his ensemble La Fenice gave several concerts during 2009 and 2010 at the occasion of the 350th anniversary of Purcell's birth (not his death, as Tubéry inadvertently writes in his liner-notes).

The present disc comprises a sequence of sacred and secular vocal items and some instrumental pieces. Inevitably the programme includes some well-known pieces. Purcell is one of those composers whose oeuvre is frequently performed and recorded, not only in the UK by British ensembles, but also elsewhere. Music for a while and Fairest isle - the latter from the semi-opera King Arthur - have evergreen status and some instrumental items are also very familiar. However, there are also more obscure pieces, and that goes in particular for the three secular songs: Hark, how the wild musicians sing, Soft notes and gently rais'd accent and How pleasant is this flow'ry plain. This part of Purcell's oeuvre is not often explored. These three pieces show that this neglect is unjustified. One of the features of Purcell's oeuvre is its consistent quality. As one critic said: I have never heard a bad note from Purcell.

In one respect these performances differ from what one may expect. Several pieces are scored for different instruments than indicated by the composer. A New Irish Tune is a piece for harpsichord, but here played by harpsichord and organ. David Van Bouwel also plays the hornpipe from King Arthur and the Ground in Gamut in G, the latter another piece for harpsichord. The Sonata VI a 3 is originally scored for two violins and basso continuo; here the melody parts are shared by violin and cornett. The manuscript of Three parts upon a Ground in F mentions three violins or three recorders as alternatives. It is played here by violin, oboe and cornett. From a historical angle the participation of a cornett is debatable. It still was played in Purcell's time, but only in liturgical music and at special occasions, such as a coronation. Its use in chamber music seems highly unlikely, even earlier in the 17th century. Musically this combination of instruments doesn't work very well: the violin part is underexposed and overshadowed by the oboe and the cornett.

Although most of the singers have a slight tremolo in their voice the singing is generally very good. In the pieces for several voices the balance is not always ideal, probably the effect of this being a compilation of live performances. Among the highlights are Music for a while, beautifully sung by Céline Scheen, and the two contributions of Hana Blaziková, Fairest isle and the Voluntary on the Old Hundredth. In the latter she sings the psalm tune; it was a nice idea to present this piece as a specimen of the alternatim practice. All in all, this is a nice disc which approaches Purcell from a somewhat different angle.

The second disc is more 'conventional', so to speak, at least in the choice of repertoire. A large part of the programme consists of pieces which are very familiar, be it Sound the trumpet, An Evening Hymn or - again - Music for a while. However, the performances are far less conventional. Most vocal items which are regularly performed are scored for high voices: soprano or alto, and that creates certain expectations. Here they are performed by a tenor and a baritone, and one probably needs some time to get used to that. Some pieces are taken from music for the theatre, including semi-operas, such as King Arthur. Obviously in a complete performance of those works one has to stick to the original scoring. But Purcell's widow took care of publishing a number of his songs in two collections with the title Orpheus Brittannicus. If such songs are published as independent pieces, isolated from their context, there is no fundamental objection to a performance with other types of voices. They are sung mostly quite well. One of the highlights is From rosie bow'rs (from Don Quixote) which is given a quite dramatic performance by Reinoud Van Mechelen. Whether one likes Nicolas Achten's voice is a matter of taste. He is a baritone but the lower register is not that strong; his voice is rather a low tenor. Here and there I miss some depth and colour in his performances. But An Evening Hymn is really well done, with the exception of the participation of a recorder towards the end. I can't figure out the reasons for that, and it doesn't make it any better.

That is one of the features of this disc which raises questions, and so is the instrumental performance of the keyboard items. Achten and his colleagues have given various aspects of performance practice much thought. The strong French influence in English music life since the Restoration has inspired them to apply the French habit of performing equal notes as notes inégales. The instruments played in England in the 17th century were also a matter of concern. Here they use a reconstruction of an English theorbo which was quite different from its Italian counterpart. References to the guitar in some of Purcell's texts have been taken as an argument to include a guitar in these performances. The basso continuo is often played on the harp. In his liner-notes Achten mentions the role of the harp in England at the time. As far as the choice of keyboard is concerned, instead of a harpsichord Achten plays a virginal, which was very much part of English music life at the time. However, the freedom has been taken to use a copy of an Italian instrument, but then with gut strings, unlike the original. This is one aspect which - like the use of a harp and a guitar - is largely based on speculation. Lastly, it is notable that the temperament is 1/4-comma mean-tone. That seems historically plausible as it was used in English organs well into the 18th century and even the early 19th.

All these considerations in regard to performance practice are admirable and cannot be appreciated enough. It is just a shame that so many performers exclude the pronunciation of historical texts from their pursuit of authenticity. I find it rather odd that the members of Scherzi Musicali look for the right instruments, but then use modern pronunciation in the vocal items. That doesn't take anything away from my appreciation of this disc which I mostly enjoyed, even though not every item comes off as well as one would wish and some aspects of performance practice are questionable.

One word regarding the production standards. The English translation of the original French liner-notes in the Alpha booklet is excellent, unlike that in the Ars Production disc's booklet. It is most annoying that in both productions the numbers in the Zimmermann catalogue are omitted and even the sources of many songs are not mentioned. I have added them but can't guarantee that everyone is correct.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Ensemble La Fenice
Scherzi Musicali

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