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Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695): Songs

[I] "The Care of Lovers"
Rowan Pierce, sopranoa; William Carter, lute, theorbob; Richard Egarr, harpsichordc
rec: Jan 16 - 18, 2018, Haarlem, Doopsgezinde Gemeente
Linn Records - CKD 592 ( 2019) (59'47")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics
Cover & track-list

A Ground in Gamut (Z 645); From silent shades (Bess of Bedlam) (Z 370)abc; Bonduca, or The British Heroine (Z 574) (O lead me to some peaceful gloom)ab; Ground (ZD 222); Hears not my Phillis (The Knotting Song) (Z 371)abc; If music be the food of love (Z 379c)ac; Now that the sun hath veiled his light (An evening hymn on a ground) (Z 193)abc; O solitude, my sweetest choice (Z 406)ab; Oedipus, King of Thebes (Z 583) (Music for a while)ac; Pausanias, the Betrayer of his Country (Z 585) (Sweeter than roses)abc; She loves and she confesses too (Z 413)abc; Tell me, some pitying angel (The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation) (Z 196)abc; The fatal hour comes on apace (Z 421)abc; The History of King Richard the Second (Z 581) (Retir'd from mortal's sight)ab; The History of Timon of Athens, the Man-Hater (Z 632) (The cares of lovers)abc; The Rival Sisters, or The Violence of Love (Z 609) (Celia has a thousand charms)abc; The Tempest (Z 631) (Dear pretty youth)ac; Thou wakeful shepherd (A morning hymn) (Z 198)abc

[II] "Sweeter than roses - Songs by Henry Purcell"
Anna Dennis, soprano
Sounds Baroque
Dir: Julian Perkins
rec: Jan 21 - 23, 2018, Salisbury, Trafalgar Park
Resonus - RES10235 ( 2019) (67'33")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

Francesco CORBETTA (1615-1681): Suite in Ca; Giovanni Battista DRAGHI (1640-1708): Suite in e minorb; Henry LAWES (1596-1662): A Lover's Legacy; No Reprieve; Henry PURCELL: Celia's fond, too long I've lov'd her (Z 364); Cupid, the slyest rogue alive (Z 367); I came, I saw, and was undone (The Thraldom) (Z 375); In the black, dismal dungeon of despair (Z 190); King Arthur (Z 628) (How blest are shepherds) (arr Sounds Baroque); Love arms himself in Celia's eyes (Z 392); Now that the sun hath veiled his light (An evening hymn on a ground) (Z 193); Oh! fair Cedaria, hide those eyes (Z 402); On the brow of Richmond Hill (Z 405); Pausanias, the Betrayer of his Country (Z 585) (Sweeter than roses); She loves and she confesses too (Z 413); Urge me no more (Z 426)

Henrik Persson, viola da gamba; James Akers, theorbo, guitar (soloa); Julian Perkins, spinet, harpsichord (solob), organ


The songs of Henry Purcell are among the most popular which singers like to include in their recitals. Even those, who mostly sing later music, like to turn to Purcell when they want to make a foray into the field of pre-romantic music. His oeuvre includes a large number of songs, which are of two categories. The first is the corpus of separate songs, such as If music be the food of love. That is one of the most famous specimens of that category. However, many other songs are little known, for instance Hears not my Phillis. Far more popular are the songs which Purcell originally wrote to be included in stage music. Purcell's most famous song, Music for a while, is taken from Oedipus, King of Thebes. A number of such songs were so popular that after Purcell's death they were published separately in two collections under the title Orpheus Britannicus.

This very fact could be used as a justification to perform theatrical songs separately, outside their dramatic context. However, that is not without risks, as William Carter's comment on Music for a while shows. "Sometimes viewed simply as Purcell's encomium on the power of music, Music for a while should rather be understood in its sinister dramatic context. From John Dryden's version of Oedipus, the song is a musical spell which allows (on a darkened stage) the ghost of the murdered father Laius to rise from Hell and accuse his son". We should not forget that the people who performed the songs from Orpheus Britannicus, very likely were well aware of their dramatic context. That is different today.

A recording offers the possibility to put the songs into their context. Carter's liner-notes to the first disc reviewed here, are very helpful. And his description of the context of Music for a while is reflected by Rowan Pierce's interpretation, which has some dark and dramatic streaks, more than one is used to hear in this song. As much of Purcell's theatrical music is not that easy to perform in our time, it is pretty much inevitable to perform them as independent songs.

The performers seem to be torn between two ideas. On the one hand they perform these songs out of their dramatic context. On the other hand they reckon with the performance practice in the theatre. "In published versions of these songs the viola da gamba is sometimes mentioned as a possible accompanying instrument but this is likely only in the context of the instruments a keen amateur might have at home. It seems clear from payment records and descriptions like this one from The Tempest [quoted earlier in the liner-notes] that the harpsichord and theorbo (and to a lesser extent the lute) were the instruments of choice for professionals in the theatre. After some discussion we decided that it would be more fun to confine ourselves to this limited palette and try to dig more from a few instruments than to add extra and possibly extraneous colours from a viol (or organ, harp, etc)". There is nothing wrong with the limitation to theorbo and harpsichord, but the arguments are rather questionable. Why should they confine themselves to instruments used in the theatre? With this recital we are not in the theatre, but indeed in the private home of a music lover.

Another issue is the placement of the instruments. The quotation above referred to an earlier reference to the libretto from a production of The Tempest in 1674, which says that "the Harpsicals and Theorbo's which accompany the Voices, are plac'd between the Pit and the Stage". Is this the reason why the two instruments take more or less a back seat? The theorbo is pretty well audible, but in comparison the harpsichord has not much presence. Again, that may have been the performance practice at the stage, but here we are in a private home.

Although the programme includes some lesser-known songs, most of the pieces performed here are known from quite a number of other recordings. I mentioned Music for a while which receives a more dramatic performance than usual. I did not know Hears not my Phillis, which is a nice song in four stanzas. Each ends with the line "sat and knotted all the while". The word knotted is repeated three times, which is quite effective. Rowan Pierce sings it nicely. The morning hymn Thou wakeful shepherd is written in a monodic style, and she here takes just enough rhythmical freedom. However, overall I am not really impressed by these performances. I don't particularly like Pierce's voice, which obviously is a matter of taste. But her incessant, though not very wide vibrato spoils my enjoyment. In several songs I also miss depth and expression, for instance in O Solitude, my sweetest choice and in Tell mee, some pitying angel. There is little in this recording which attracted my attention. As much as I love Purcell, this is not a disc I shall return to.

That may be different with the second disc. Like on the previous one, we hear here some familiar songs, such as Sweeter than roses, which opens the programme and which is fortunately one of the few pieces included in both recordings. However, most of the songs performed by Anna Dennis are not among the best-known, such as On the brow of Richmond Hill and Urge me no more. This disc also offers more than its title indicates. In addition to songs by Purcell we hear two songs by Henry Lawes and instrumental pieces by two of Purcell's contemporaries, Francesco Corbetta and Giovanni Battista Draghi. That is nice, as they put Purcell in his historical context, but there is hardly any connection between these instrumental works and what is the main subject of this disc. In that respect the inclusion of two songs by Henry Lawes is more relevant.

Bruce Wood, in his liner-notes, focuses on Purcell's treatment of words. In the first paragraph he quotes the publisher Henry Playford, who stated in the preface to Orpheus Britannicus: "The Author's extraordinary Talent in all sorts of Musick is sufficiently known, but he was especially admir'd for the Vocal, having a peculiar Genius to express the energy of English Words, whereby he mov'd the Passions of all his Auditors". He then discusses the songs from that perspective. As most of the songs performed here are from the category of the separate songs, there is little reason to discuss their dramatic context, as William Carter did in his liner-notes. Wood's comments are also very helpful to understand the specific features of Purcell's songs and why they were and are so strongly admired.

This perspective seems also to have directed the interpretation of Anna Dennis. She pays much attention to the text, singles out some specific words or phrases, for instance by slowing down or through dynamic accents. It is notable that she takes considerably more time in Sweeter than roses than Rowan Pierce: 3'34" vs 3'07". The same goes for the Evening Hymn (4'19" vs 3'50"). Without claiming that Dennis's tempi are more appropriate, overall I enjoyed her performances better as I have noticed here the depth I sometimes missed in Pierce's interpretations. However, that has also to do with other factors. One is personal: I like her voice better than Pierce's. The other is a stylistical consideration: although Dennis uses too much vibrato now and then, overall she applies it more sparingly and often omits it altogether.

The inclusion of two songs by Henry Lawes is most welcome. He was the main composer of songs of the generation before Purcell, and many of them may have been originally intended for the theatre. It is hard to understand that his large output is so badly represented on disc. The two songs performed here, show their great qualities, and that goes especially for No reprieve.

Corbetta and Draghi are just two of the many musicians and composers from the continent who settled in England from Purcell's time onwards. Although both were of Italian origin, their music has some French flavour. Corbetta had worked at the court in France as a player of the theorbo and the guitar. It is no surprise that his Suite in C comprises four movements with French titles: caprice de chacone, gigue, menuet and autre chacone. Draghi was a keyboard player by profession. His Suite in e minor is taken from a set of six, published in 1707. The suite was a typical French genre, which had spread across Europe, with the exception of Italy. This suite opens with a prelude, and includes one character piece, 'The Complaint'.

Whereas the performers on the first disc confined themselves to an accompaniment of lute or theorbo and harpsichord, here we hear viola da gamba, theorbo and three different keyboard instruments: harpsichord, spinet and organ. Going by the picture in the booklet, the recording seems to have taken place in a rather intimate venue, and that is confirmed by the sound.

Despite some issues, this disc is a nice and interesting addition to the discography, especially as it includes several less familiar items.

Johan van Veen ( 2019)

Relevant links:

Rowan Pierce
Sounds Baroque

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