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John ECCLES (c1668 - 1735): The Mad Lover

Olivia Vermeulen, mezzo-soprano
Capella Orlandi Bremen
Dir: Thomas Ihlenfeldt

rec: Jan 5 - 9 & July 3 - 4, 2016, Berlin-Wannsee, Andreaskirche
CPO - 555 061-2 (© 2018) (66'13")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Eccles, The Mad Lover

John ECCLES: Advance gay tenants [Acis and Galatea]; Ah, how lovely sweet and dear [Acis and Galatea]; Cease of Cupid [Wine and Love]; Come ye Nymphs [Acis and Galatea]; Hast, give me wings [The Fickle Sheperdess]; I burn, my brain consumes to ashes [The comical History of Don Quixote]; If I hear Orinda swear [Love betrayed or The Agreeable Disappointment]; Know I've sworn [Acis and Galatea]; Must then a faithfull lover go [Acis and Galatea]; O take him gently [Cyrus the Great or The Tragedy of Love]; Still I'm grieving [The Rape of Europa by Jupiter]; Strephon, whose Person ev'ry Grace; The Mad Lover; Who would be made a wife [Acis and Galatea]; Why should the idle [The Ambitious Slave or A generous Revenge]; Gottfried (Godfrey) FINGER (c1660-1730): Love at a Loss, incidental music; The Rival Queens or The Death of Alexander the Great, incidental music

Dorothee Kunst, recorder; Eduard Wesley, Martin Jelev, oboe; Dagmar Valentová, Jirina Strynclová, violin; Klaus Bona, viola; James Bush, cello; Barbara Hoffmann, viola da gamba, violone; Thomas Ihlenfeldt, chitarrone, guitar; Mark Nordstrand, harpsichord, organ

It is not easy for modern performers to get a grip on the world of the (musical) theatre of late 17th-century England. Since the time of Shakespeare it was common to include songs in plays, which were usually performed by choirboys (The Willow Song to be performed as part of Shakespeare's play Othello is one of the best-known examples). Music played an increasingly important role in (spoken) plays, and this resulted in the birth of the masque, a musical entity of a pastoral nature, which was performed during a play.

The reconstruction of theatre music from late 17th-century England is virtually impossible. In many cases the (spoken) plays for which music was written, have been lost. Those librettos which have come down to us, usually don't indicate where instrumental movements had to be inserted. One possibility is that they were used as entr'acte music. However, they may also have been played at several moments during the play, like the dances in the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully. Because of that instrumental movements are sometimes played in the form of suites, again comparable to performances of suites from operas by the likes of Lully and Rameau. A recent example is a disc of the Vox Orchester.

The songs in plays were often set to music by composers such as Henry Purcell and John Eccles; the latter takes central place in the programme put together by Thomas Ihlenfeldt. Such songs were often printed separately; in the case of Purcell they were published in two volumes under the title of Orpheus Britannicus. Ihlenfeldt included specimens of both vocal and instrumental music, and decided to mix them.

Bringing together music by Gottfried Finger, who was probably born in Olomouc in Bohemia and was called Godfrey in England, and John Eccles makes much sense. They were not only contemporaries, but they were also two of the contestants to the competition which took place in 1700 in which composers were invited to set to music a libretto by William Congreve, The Judgement of Paris. The other two composers involved were Daniel Purcell and John Wheldon. The latter came out as the winner, whereas Finger landed at fourth place. He considered this as the result of the partiality of the judges and later Charles Burney seemed to share his view as he called him "the best musician perhaps among the candidates". The disappointment led him to leave the country in 1701 and never to return.

John Eccles was born in London as the son of a musician. The first sign of his activities as a composer was the publication of a collection of songs in 1691. In 1693 he started to compose for the United Companies at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Success came fast, and he soon developed into one of the most popular composers for the theatre. In 1695 a new company was founded at Lincoln's Inn Field. Eccles became its musical director.

The programme opens with the instrumental music Finger composed for the comedy Love at a Loss, which was performed - with Finger's music - at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1701. Four songs by Eccles are inserted. They were written for different plays, as listed in the header. Notable is Still I'm grieving, as this was part of the masque The Rape of Europa by Jupiter. This is an example of a masque included in a play; in this case that was The Valentinian by John Wilmot. The piece was performed in 1694, with the music by Eccles, at the Queen's Theatre in Dorset Gardens. The song Strephon, whose Person ev'ry Grace was not part of a play, but specifically "set for Mrs. Bracegirdle". Anne Bracegirdle was a singer at Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Next follows the instrumental music Finger composed for the tragedy The Rival Queens or The Death of Alexander the Great. It was written by Nathaniel Lee in 1676/77 and performed to great acclaim. It was regularly restaged; a performance in 1701 at the Theatre Royal included Finger's music. Three songs by Eccles are inserted. It can hardly be coincidental that Ihlenfeldt included I burn, my brain consumes to ashes. This is a so-called mad song - a song which is put into the mouth of a mental patient. "Since Shakespeare's time the 'mental patients' confined to the Bethlem Royal Hospital (generally known as 'Bedlam') were for many of London's residents an attraction and macabre destination for Sunday excursions. Here a small entrance fee was charged for admission to the cells of the patients and for amusement at their supposed or real madness." (booklet) Lee spent five years at the Bedlam Hospital (1684-89). This song was written for The comical History of Don Quixote by Thomas D'Urfey, which was performed at the Theatre Royal in 1694 with music by, among others, Eccles and Henry Purcell.

The third section of the programme is entirely devoted to Eccles. The instrumental music was written for The Mad Lover. This play from the pen of John Fletcher was first performed in 1679 and later adapted to contemporary taste by Peter Anthony Motteux. In 1700 this version was performed at the New Theatre at Lincoln Inn's Fields with the music by Eccles. All but one of the songs inserted were written for Acis and Galatea, a masque by Motteux, based on the well-known story from Ovid's Metamorphoses. This masque was originally part of The Mad Lover.

As I wrote at the start of this review, it is almost impossible to perform theatrical plays as they were given at the time of the authors and composers. It is not so much a problem to perform a suite of instrumental movements. Some of the longer and more substantial songs, such as I burn, my brain consumes to ashes, can be performed separately, but there are also songs that are too short, such as Come ye nimphs, which takes only 52". The concept Ihlenfeldt has developed for this programme works rather well. Olivia Vermeulen and the ensemble have found the right approach to this repertoire. Vermeulen rightly pulls out all the stops in Eccles's mad song I just mentioned, whereas in other songs she is more restrained. Now and then she uses a bit more vibrato than she should have, but all in all it did not bother me that much. The instrumental line-up, with two violins and one viola, as well as recorder and two oboes, seems historically justified. Only the participation of a cello and a violone seems questionable. The playing is excellent: there are no exaggerated dynamic accents like I noticed in some other recordings I reviewed recently. The music has a nice natural flow.

This is a very interesting and musically rewarding disc, which gives us insight into the fascinating world of the late 17th-century English theatre.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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Olivia Vermeulen

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