musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695): "Abdelazer - Suites by Henry Purcell after the tragedy by Aphra Behn"

Orchester Le Phénix
Linard Bardill (CD 1), John Holloway (CD 2), narrator

rec: Oct 21 - 23, 2010, Grüningen (CH), Schlosskirche
Coviello Classics - COV 21202 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (67'10" / 64'25")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Abdelazer, or The Moor’s Revenge (Z 570); Bonduca, or The British Heroine (Z 574); Distress’d Innocence, or The Princess of Persia (Z 577); The Double Dealer (Z 592); The Gordion Knot Unty’d (Z 597)

In the course of the 17th century opera had developed into one of the main musical genres on the European continent, and in particular in France and Italy. This development had largely passed England by. There spoken drama had been one of the main sources of entertainment. These pieces were sometimes enriched by musical interludes. These had usually no connection to the drama itself. It is therefore not surprising that the music which Henry Purcell composed to spoken dramas which were performed in his time, can be played without the dramatic context. The present production tries to bring them together. The starting point is the story of Abdelazer, or The Moor's Revenge, which was written by Aphra Behn and which was premiered in 1676. The fact that Purcell wrote his music to this play in 1695 proves that Ms Behn's plays were quite popular. She led an adventurous life which brought her in Surinam and the southern Netherlands where she acted as a spy. She is called an "adventurer, spy, courtesan, play writer and novelist" in the liner-notes.

Mathias Kleiböhmer explains the procedure of this production: "We first translated the tragedy Abdelazer from 17th century English into modern English to better understand the complex story about a slave who becomes king after many intrigues and murders; we then added the appropriate music to each scene." The story is told in broad outline; to what extent it is faithful to the play as written by Aphra Behn is impossible to check. The first disc includes the story in German, told by Linard Bardill, a professional storyteller. He tries to bring some tension into the affair, whereas John Holloway, violinist by profession, doesn't make any attempt in this department. He just tells the story, and the result is a rather boring affair. It is also quite odd that at some moment during the 'play' the narrator gives a short biography of Aphra Behn. That doesn't help to enhance the drama. Obviously Purcell's music doesn't suffice for the whole play. Therefore music for four other plays has been added.

One wonders why this project has been undertaken. It took two years to create this production, and I seriously doubt whether it was worth the time and effort. As I have already indicated, there is no connection between the music and the drama. Therefore Purcell's music doesn't need the story of Abdelazar to be told. Moreover, what could be a nice experience in a live performance is not necessarily effective on disc. I very much doubt that many music lovers who purchase this disc want to hear the same story every time they listen to Purcell's music. That would not have been a problem if the spoken text had been allocated to separate tracks. In fact, the text is spoken at the end of tracks with music. The only way to avoid the text is to jump to the next track as soon as the music stops. That means that one has to listen with the remote control at hand. I don't think I am the only one who find that annoying and therefore wouldn't even consider playing this disc. The insertion of the text sometimes even damages the music, especially in the overture to Abdelazar, where the A and B sections are separated by Holloway's storytelling.

I can't say that I am very enthusiastic about the performance of Le Phénix either. Undoubtedly it is a very good ensemble, and they play very well. In fact, they play as I would like an ensemble to perform German baroque music, with strong dynamic accents and a clear articulation. However, I believe that this is not the way to perform English music, and certainly not Purcell. There is a close connection between music and language, and as German and English sound very differently, German and English music should be played differently as well.

Purcell's brilliant and highly entertaining music has not been served very well by this production.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Orchester Le Phénix

CD Reviews