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Daniel PURCELL (c1670 - 1717): "The Unknown Purcell"

Hazel Brooks, violina; David Pollock, harpsichord

rec: August 1 - 4, 2011, Oxford, Church of St Michael and All Angels, Summertown
Chandos - CHAN 0795 (© 2013) (75'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Alass when charming Sylvia's gon; Chaconne in a minora [3]; Lovely charmer; Rondeau in B flat; Solo in Da [5]; Solo in Aa [5]; Solo in b minora [5]; Sonata in Da [1]; Sonata in Da [1]; Sonata in f minora [1]; Sonata in Aa [1]; Sonata in Aa [1]; Sonata b minora [1]; Suite in d minor [2]; Toccata in a minor [4]; What ungrateful devil moves you

Daniel Purcell, [1] Six Sonatas or Solos, three for a Violin and three for a Flute, 1698; [2] A Collection of Lessons and Airs for the Harpsicord or Spinett, 1702; John Walsh, ed, [3] The Second Part of The Division Violin containing the newest divisions upon grounds for the violin, 1705; [4] The 2d Book of the Lady's Entertainment, 1708; [5] Daniel Purcell, Six Sonatas, three for two Flutes and a Bass, and three Solos for a Flute and a Bass, c1710

This is the first disc I have ever encountered which is entirely devoted to "the other Purcell", who is - as its title indicates - largely unknown (*). Daniel Purcell is generally considered the younger brother of Henry, for instance in New Grove, but in his liner-notes Peter Holman casts doubt on that assumption. He believes that there are indications that he was the son of Thomas rather than of Henry senior. "Daniel called Henry his brother in the preface to his Six Cantatas of 1713, though in seventeenth-century England the word 'brother' could include cousins in the immediate family circle, as it still does in some societies today". Whatever the relationship between the two Purcell's, Holman underlines Daniel's independence and states that his music has a character of its own. He lived much longer and as a result his oeuvre includes musical forms and styles which did hardly exist in Henry's time.

A look at the work-list in New Grove reveals that Daniel was most active as a composer of music for the stage. In 1700 he took part in the competition to set William Congreve's The Judgment of Paris in which he ended at third place, behind John Wheldon and John Eccles. He also completed Henry's semi-opera The Indian Queen after the latter's death in 1695. However, Daniel was educated as an organist and for many years acted as a keyboard teacher. Very few keyboard pieces from his pen are known, though; this disc comprises nearly his complete output in this genre. The Toccata in a minor which opens the programme is the only independent piece for harpsichord. The rest of Daniel's keyboard music comprises arrangements of works for instrumental ensemble (Suite in D/d; Rondeau in B flat) or songs which he composed for various stage works. Such song arrangements were very popular at the time, and were also frequently written by Henry.

The largest part of this disc is devoted to sonatas. Daniel's output in this genre is rather modest. Just two collections of sonatas were printed in 1698 and around 1710 respectively. The first includes six sonatas or 'solos' for one instrument and bc. Three of them are specifically written for the violin and three for the recorder. However, Peter Holman explains that the two instruments were largely interchangeable and that composers expected performers to adapt them through transposition. As a result we hear here the complete collection on the violin. It would have been useful if the track-list had indicated which sonatas were transposed and what the original key is. As there are two sonatas from this set in D major - at least in this performance - their place in the collection should have been added as well. The other collection also includes six sonatas, but here three are for two recorders, whereas the remaining three are for one recorder. These are performed here, probably again transposed.

The sonatas have a various number of movements, all with Italian titles such as grave, adagio, allegro or vivace. They are mostly rather short and generally avoid counterpoint. In that respect they differ from the Corellian sonata da chiesa which was quite popular at the time in England. The first composition for violin and bc in the programme is the engaging Chaconne in a minor which is an arrangement of a piece from the play The Unhappy Penitent (1701). It was included in The Second Part of the Division Violin, published by John Walsh in 1705. It receives a well-differentiated and contrasting performance which is promising for the rest of the programme.

Unfortunately these promises are never really fulfilled. The faster movements mostly come of rather well; a good example is the allegro from the Sonata in D (track 34). However, Hazel Brooks fails to keep the slow movements interesting. She mostly gives equal weight to the notes, without clearly differentiating between stressed and unstressed notes through dynamic contrasts or through articulation. There is some dynamic shading on long notes, but it is too stereotypical. She is also too sparing in the addition of ornamentation, and the use of a slight vibrato now and then would have added some flavour to her performances. Sometimes I wondered about the choice of tempo. The Sonatas in b minor and in D major both open with a vivace (tracks 8 and 13 respectively) but these movements are played at a rather slow tempo. They don't sound very vivace in my ears.

The grave from the Sonata in A (track 48) is a kind of toccata and has a clear improvisatory character, but that is hardly conveyed. The second adagio from the Sonata in f minor which closes the programme is too rigid; it invites for much more variation in tempo and dynamics. Ironically the most dynamic part of these performances comes from the harpsichord which has considerable presence and forward drive, but in the end it is to no avail.

As much as one has to appreciate the effort to put Daniel Purcell into the spotlight this project has largely turned into a rather tame affair, I'm afraid. The track-list claims that all pieces, except the last three sonatas (all from 1698), are recorded here for the first time. That is not entirely correct: the German ensemble Mediolanum has recorded one of the sonatas in A (tracks 23-27) from the same collection. That disc offers a nice mixture of pieces by Henry and Daniel, with Daniel's sonatas played at the recorder.

(*) Jim Humphreys has been so kind to inform me about two previous discs devoted to Daniel Purcell:
- "Sonatas & Cantatas" (Les Tresors d'Orphée; Stradivarius - Str 33360)
- "Brotherly Love - The Music of Daniel Purcell" (Evelyn Tubb, Ensemble Sprezzatura; Et'cetera - KTC 1232)

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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