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Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695): "Love Songs"

Dorothee Mields, sopranoa
Lautten Compagney Berlin
Dir: Wolfgang Katschner

rec: June 24 - 27, 2009, Friedrichshain, Pfingstkirche
Carus - 83.435 (© 2010) (76'12")

I love and I must (Z 382)a; If music be the food of love (Z 379)a; King Arthur (Z 628): Borée; For love ev'ry creaturea; Hornpipe; Pausanias, the Betrayer of his Country (Z 585): Sweeter than rosesa; The History of Timon of Athens, The Man-Hater (Z 632): But ah!a; Come all to mea; Curtain tune on a ground; Hark! how the songstersa; Love in their little veins inspiresa; Overture; The cares of loversa; The Faery Queen (Z 629): Chaconne; Entrance of nighta; Hark! the echoing aira; Hush, no morea; If love's a sweet passiona; O let me weepa; One charming nighta; Ye gentle spirits of the aira; The Mock Marriage (Z 605): Man is for the woman madea; The Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian (Z 627): Butterfly dance; Chaconne; Dance; First music; Let us dancea; Prelude; Since from my deara;

Martin Ripper, recorder; Andrea Theinert, recorder, transverse flute; Timothée Oudinot, oboe; Karel Mnuk, trumpet; Birgit Schnurpfeil, Anne von Hoff, violin; Ulrike Paetz, viola; Ulrike Becker, cello; Annette Rheinfurth, double bass; Hans-Werner Apel, lute, guitar; Wolfgang Katscher, lute, theorbo; Mark Nordstrand, harpsichord, organ; Peter Bauer, percussion

Henry Purcell had great theatrical flair. It is not just his only opera Dido and Aeneas which bears witness of that. It can be discerned in his compositions in other genres as well, like in his sacred and instrumental music. Then there are his contributions to the typically English genre of the semi-opera, a play with separate episodes or masques with music. This discs brings extracts from three semi-operas: The Faery Queen, King Arthur and The Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian. In addition we hear songs and dances which Purcell wrote for plays with musical interludes, like The History of Timon of Athens, The Man Hater. Some of Purcell's songs have become quite famous, but not every music-lover realises that several of them were written for the theatre. Two examples are included in this programme: Sweeter than roses and Man is for the woman made.

A recording with theatrical music by Purcell is nothing special: this part of his oeuvre is pretty well represented on disc, although really complete recordings are rare, because of the amount of spoken texts. Most recordings are from the English-speaking world which is understandable as the texts and character of this repertoire aren't that easy to grasp for non-English speakers, let alone the humour. It has to be said, though, that outside Britain Purcell's music isn't that well-known anyway. The commemoration of his birth in 2009 made little difference, I'm afraid. From that perspective this recording by the Lautten Compagney Berlin should be welcome, even though I can't see any logic in the way the programme has been put together.

Wolfgang Katschner's choice of Dorothee Mields to sing the vocal items is excellent. It is hard to find a better interpreter for Purcell's vocal music outside the English-speaking world. At the beginning of her career she was compared to the young Emma Kirkby. Since then her voice has grown and become stronger and warmer. But she still has some of the skills which have made Ms Kirkby famous, like an immaculate diction and pronunciation, and a fine and tasteful ornamentation. These qualities are certainly needed in Purcell's music. Ms Mields doesn't disappoint in this respect. 'Entrance of the night' and 'Hush no more' from The Faery Queen are two examples of how great this disc could have been. Unfortunately Dorothee Mields has landed in the wrong show. Wolfgang Katschner's interpretation is rather unusual, to put it in a friendly way. His addition of percussion to many items is only one of the idiosyncrasies of these performances.

The programme even starts with percussion: in the 'Curtain tune on a ground' from Timon of Athens a Jew's harp enters, and then the strings join in. It is just one of the odd things, the other being that the string bass is played pizzicato. Later we hear the overture from this play, and here a complete drum roll. I don't know why Katschner thought percussion was needed. He probably assumed it would emphasize the dance character of many of Purcell's instrumental music and songs, but the effect is exactly the opposite. What actually happens is that the rhythms are given an almost military rigidity and all flexibility goes out of the window. This is only enhanced by the style of playing of the Lautten Compagney, with heavy accents on the strong beats and a very sharp articulation. This is all very appropriate in German music but not in English repertoire. The tempi are sometimes off the mark as well: the hornpipe from King Arthur is so fast that it is impossible to feel the dance rhythm. It is certainly impossible to dance at such a high speed.

There are so many pieces on this disc which seriously suffer from this erratic approach. In the second stanza of the song If music be the food of love the rhythm is twisted in a rigid drone through the addition of percussion. In Sweeter than roses which is scored for voice and basso continuo Katschner has added strings. This takes away the rhythmic freedom this song requires, and obstructs a truly rhetorical and speech-like performance. The rigid and harsh style of playing destroys the effect of If love's sweet passion and Since from my dear, as beautifully as they are sung by Dorothee Mields. The closing lines of the latter, "that makes me wish to die", is devoid of the sensitivity one would expect.

In the light of this, who would be surprised about the use of a double bass in One charming night (The Faery Queen) or an organ in The cares of lovers (Timon of Athens)? The addition of mechanically-produced bird's noises in Hark! how the songsters (Timon of Athens) is pure kitsch.

The relatively few items where Purcell's scoring has been left untouched come off best, in particular when Dorothee Mields has the chance to show her skills undisturbed by the orchestra. But those are not enough to save this disc. Here Purcell's strokes of genius have been twisted by bad taste.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Lautten Compagney Berlin

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