musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695): "Symphony while the swans come forward"

Johannette Zomer, soprano
La Sfera Armoniosa
Dir: Mike Fentross

rec: Dec 6, 2017 (live), Essen, Philharmonie (Alfred-Krupp-Saal)
Challenge Classics - CC72783 (© 2018) (78'57")
Liner-notes: E; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

King Arthur (Z 628) (Overture; First act tune; Hornpipe; Fairest isle; Trumpet tune; St George, the patron of our isle; Chaconne); The Fairy Queen (Z 629) (Preludio; Hornpipe; Air; Rondeau; Symphony while the swans come forward; If love's a sweet passion; Symphony; Ye gentle spirits of the air; Dance for the followers of the Night; See even Night herself is here; Air; Hark! The echoing Air; Grand Dance); The Indian Queen (Z 630) (Air; I attempt from love's sickness; Hornpipe); The Prophetess: or, The History of Dioclesian (Z 627) (Symphony for trumpets and violins; First music; What shall I do to show how much I love her; Butterfly dance; Dance of Furies; Since from my dear Astrea's sight; Tune for trumpets; Canaries)

Lidewei de Sterck, Mario Topper, oboe; Wouter Verschuren, bassoon; Graham Nicholson, Bruno Fernandes, trumpet; Lidewij van der Voort, Matthea de Muynck, Luca Alfonso Rizzello, Sakura Goto, Sara de Vries, Judith Verona, Agnieszka Papierska, violin; Femke Huizinga, Marta Jimenez, Alaia Ferran, viola; Bob Smith, viola da gamba, bass violin; Diederik van Dijk, Carlos Leal Cardín, bass violin; Guilio Quirici, Mike Fentross, theorbo, guitar; Jorge Lopez Escribano, harpsichord; Norbert Pflanzer, percussion

Some composers seem to have been born for the theatre. The names of Handel, Rameau and Mozart spring to mind. We should add Henry Purcell to that list. He may have written just one opera, but Dido and Aeneas is generally considered one of the great masterpieces in the history of opera. However, it is not his only contribution to music for the stage. His so-called semi-operas constitute a major part of his oeuvre, and they are among the better-known pieces in his output. In particular The Fairy Queen and King Arthur are regularly performed and recorded.

New Grove gives this definition of the genre of semi-opera: "A play with four or more separate episodes or masques which include singing, dancing, instrumental music and spectacular scenic effects such as transformations and flying. The form, which flourished in England between 1673 and 1710, is further characterized by a clear demarcation between the main characters, who only speak, and minor characters – spirits, fairies, shepherds, gods and the like - who only sing or dance. Most semi-operas are tragicomedies adapted from earlier plays. The finest examples are those with music by Henry Purcell: Dioclesian, King Arthur and The Fairy-Queen."

This explains why the pieces mentioned are seldom performed according to the original intentions. Today it is hard - if possible at all - to reconstruct what exactly was spoken and what could be seen by the audience. Modern performances mostly confine themselves to the musical items; sometimes spoken summaries of the action are inserted, as was the case in the live performance of King Arthur by Vox Luminis and La Fenice in the 2015 Festival Early Music Utrecht.

The present disc includes extracts from Purcell's three best-known semi-operas as well as the lesser-known The Prophetess. The latter is a tragi-comic semi-opera in five acts on a libretto by Thomas Betterton, based on the play The Prophetess by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, which in turn was based very loosely on the life of the Emperor Diocletian. It was premiered in 1690. It is notable that the librettist and the composer cooperated closely, as Betterton made sure Purcell had plenty opportunities to add his music. Interestingly, the premiere had a prologue written by John Dryden, which had a political character. This reminds us of the operas in France, which had always a prologue in praise of Louis XIV. The difference is that Dryden's prologue was rather critical of William of Orange's military campaign in Ireland, and therefore was omitted after the first performance. This recording offers a sequence of instrumental pieces and songs; the best-known song is 'Since from my dear Astrea's sight'.

The Indian Queen is the last music for the stage from Purcell's pen. He died before he could finish it, and the music for the fifth act was composed by his brother Daniel. The libretto is again from the pen of Betterton, who adapted John Dryden's play of 1664. The story is situated in the New World before the Spanish conquest, and is about a conflict between the kings of Peru and Mexico. From this piece we get only three items: the song 'I attempt from love's sickness' is embraced by an air and a hornpipe.

King Arthur is based on a libretto by John Dryden himself. It was performed in 1691 at the Queen's Theatre, Dorset Garden. The story is about the battles between King Arthur's Britons and the Saxons. It includes supernatural characters such as Cupid and Venus. The tale centres on Arthur's endeavours to recover his fiancée, the blind Cornish Princess Emmeline, who has been abducted by his arch-enemy, the Saxon King Oswald of Kent. One of its most famous pieces is the so-called 'Frost Scene', but as that is scored for a bass, it is obviously not included here. What we inevitably do get is one of Purcell's most famous songs, 'Fairest isle', in praise of Britain - no wonder it is an evergreen in the UK. The selection ends with a chaconne - like in French operas such a piece based on a basso ostinato was a fixed part of Purcell's semi-operas.

The disc ends with a large selection from The Fairy Queen; the libretto was probably again from the pen of Thomas Betterton, and is an adaptation of William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was first performed in 1692. Whereas the spoken text is largely identical with Shakespeare's, Purcell used different texts for the vocal items in the masques he composed for the various acts. One of the best-known of these is The Plaint, opening with the words "O let me weep". That item is omitted here. Instead we hear 'If love's a sweet passion', 'Ye gentle spirits of the air', 'See, even Night herself is here' and 'Hark! The echoing air'.

Although this disc offers extracts from some of Purcell's most famous theatre music, and in that respect does not fundamentally differ from comparable recordings, there are some substantial differences. The number of instrumental movements outweighs that of the vocal items. This recording seems to focus on the instrumental part of Purcell's music. This could explain why the lyrics are omitted. That is a major shortcoming of this production. Fortunately the lyrics of these pieces are available on the internet. Secondly, for this recording instruments are used which are more or less different from what is common these days. The most obvious difference is that here two trumpets without fingerholes are played. One of the trumpeters, Graham Nicholson, copied the trumpet that belonged to John Shore, Purcell's own trumpet player. The oboists use different reeds (scraped from the inside) and the violinists use strings of completely bare gut and apply the French grip in the way they hold the bow. For the general listener the differences are most obviously in the sound of the trumpets, which may be something one has to get used to. However, it is a development which is most interesting and worthwhile. Especially the ensemble of violins and trumpets, for instance in the 'Symphony for trumpets ans violins' which opens the selection from The Prophetess, gets a different character and quality.

The playing on this disc is its major asset and the most important part of this project. I am less impressed by the vocal part. I have never been a great admirer of Johannette Zomer, although she has made some good recordings. Here she returns to her old habits of using too much vibrato, especially at the end of phrases, which is rather stereotypical. Vocally this recording is anything but ideal, but instrumentally it is most interesting and stimulating. The playing of all participants is excellent. The percussion has quite some prominence, and, while its participation is self-evident, the frequency of its involvement is debatable.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Johannette Zomer
La Sfera Armoniosa

CD Reviews