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"Beauteous softness"

Tim Mead, alto
La Nuova Musica
Dir: David Bates

rec: March 22 - 27, 2022, London, All Saints' Church
Pentatone - PTC 5187047 (© 2023) (70'00")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

John BLOW (1649-1708): An Ode on the death of Mr Henry Purcell (So ceas'd the rival crew when Purcell came); Lovely Selina; Poor Celadon, he sighs in vain; Venus and Adonis (overture); Pelham HUMFREY (c1647-1674): A Hymn to God the Father; Sleep, downy sleep, come close mine eyes (Anthem for the evening); Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Arise, my muse (Ode for the Birthday of Queen Mary) (Z 320) (Arise, my muse); Celebrate this festival (Ode for the Birthday of Queen Mary) (Z 321) (Crown the altar); Evening Hymn (Z 193); Fly, bold rebellion (Welcome Song for Charles II) (Z 324) (Be welcome then, Great Sir); If music be the food of love (Z 379a); In the black dismal dungeon of despair (Z 190); King Arthur, or The British Worthy (Z. 628) (chaconne - first music); Now does the glorious day appear (Ode for the Birthday of Queen Mary) (Z 332) (By beauteous softness); Of old, when heroes thought it base (The Yorkshire Feast Song) (Z 333) (The pale and purple rose; So when the glitt'ring Queen of Night); Te Deum and Jubilate (Z 232) (Vouchsafe, O Lord); The Fairy Queen (Z 629) (The Plaint: O let me weep); William WEBB (c1600-1657): Powerful Morpheus

Oonagh Lee, recorder, oboe; Leo Duarte, oboe; Paul Sharp, trumpet; Matthew Truscott, Jane Gordon, violin; Julia Black, Joanna Patrick, viola; Jonathan Rees, bass violin; Jonathan Manson, bass violin, viola da gamba; Judith Evans, double bass; Aileen Henry, harp; Sergio Bucheli, Toby Carr, theorbo; Joseph McHardy, harpsichord; David Bates, organ

For some centuries Venice was one of the major music centres of Italy and even of Europe. Many aristocrats visited the city as part of their grand tour to witness Henry Purcell is undoubtedly the most famous English composer of the baroque era. His extant oeuvre is large, and some of his works are frequently performed and recorded, such as the Odes for St Cecilia's Day and the semi-operas The Fairy Queen and King Arthur. Singers like to include his songs into their recitals. A substantial number of them are part of larger works, such as Welcome Songs and Birthday Odes. These songs are much better known than the pieces from which they are taken, and as a result their true meaning is not always understood. The downside of Purcell's fame is that the music of his contemporaries is not as well-known as it deserves to be. It is nice that in his recording which is the subject of this review, Tim Mead has given them some attention. This way the music of Purcell, which is the core of this disc, is put into a historical and stylistic perspective. Another praiseworthy feature is that some of the items from Purcell's pen are not among his most popular works. This disc could easily have become a kind of 'music for the millions', but it has not.

One of the features of Purcell's oeuvre is its versatility. Purcell contributed to every genre in vogue in his time. He embraced the modern Italian style with his trio sonatas, but also looked back with his fantasias for viols. With his semi-operas he could have substially influenced the development of English opera, if his life had not been so short. His prominence in the English music scene comes to the fore in his Odes for the Birthdays of members of the monarchy and in his Welcome Songs. The latter are a specially rich source of songs for a solo voice. Some of the most frequently-performed are omitted here. A piece like 'Be welcome then, great Sir' from the Welcome Song for Charles II is probably too closely connected to the addressee to be included in recitals. However, the extracts from the Odes for the Birthday of Queen Mary are not exactly evergreens either.

It is a bit of a mystery what was the idea behind the ordering of the pieces on the programme. Sacred and secular works seem to be mixed at random order. That is a bit unfortunate, for instance when two devotional songs by Pelham Humfrey and Purcell respectively are separated by the overture from John Blow's Venus and Adonis. The sacred pieces represent a lesser-known part of Purcell's oeuvre. Some of his anthems are well-known, but the solo pieces are not often performed, with the exception of the Evening Hymn, which closes the programme. It is preceded by a piece which is of the same content, Sleep, downy sleep by Pelham Humfrey.

The inclusion of music by him is most welcome, as he was a brilliant composer, who unfortunately died very young, and as a result has left only a small amount of music. However, its quality is such that its negligence is very unjust. A Hymn to God the Father is another very fine piece. Equally welcome is the performance of some songs by John Blow, teacher, colleague and friend of Purcell, who also suffers from the latter's popularity in our time. He has written a large number of anthems, which are seldom performed. The songs included here are from his collection Amphion Anglicus; a complete recording of that collection is long overdue. The items performed here attest to his qualities as a composer.

The third colleague included here is also the least-known: William Webb. He was of a previous generation: Purcell was born two years after Webb's death. Powerful Morpheus is a song for the stage and is included here to put Purcell's contributions in this field into their historical perspective. His semi-operas are rooted in a long tradition of masques and other works for the stage with music. This part of his oeuvre is represented here with a chaconne from King Arthur - Purcell very often made use of bassi ostinati or grounds, as they were called in England - and 'The Plaint', undoubtedly the most celebrated part of The Fairy Queen.

The latter is virtually the only item here where the voice goes up to its highest register. That is no surprise as this was originally scored for soprano. The other pieces are for alto, and this brings us to a question that is answered differently. Robert King, in his notes to his recordings of Purcell's sacred and secular works, expressed his opinion that a number of solos scored for alto, were probably intended to be sung by a high tenor, in France known as haute-contre. If one listens to the pieces on this disc, one is inclined to agree. In most pieces the voice moves around the centre of its range and regularly goes substantially lower. Fortunately Tim Mead has a good lower register, but it would definitely be interesting to hear some of the pieces in a performance by an haute-contre. Obviously, separate pieces - those that are not part of a larger work - for a voice and basso continuo can basically be performed at any pitch. Transposition was a common practice at the time. That concerns here a number of pieces, among them the first - If music be the food of love and the Evening Hymn.

Although I am not that happy with the way the programme has been ordered, it is a nice and musically compelling bouquet of pieces by arguably one of the greatest composers in history. A Dutch critic once stated that he had never heard a bad note from Purcell, meaning that each piece he had heard was of fine quality. I have to agree. The fact that he composed such fine music for occasional works whose texts are mostly mediocre or worse, attests to that. This disc is an impressive testimony of his art. Another positive feature is the inclusion of music by his contemporaries Blow and Humfrey, who deserve to be better-known.

Tim Mead has a fine voice, which is clear from the highest to the lowest register. I like the sound he produces, and his refined and subtle interpretations. Sometimes he is too restrained: the Evening Hymn is a bit too slow, and I had liked a more declamatory performance. Overall the sacred pieces come off best. What I find disappointing is that he uses mostly too much vibrato. It is one of the reasons that I can't recommend this disc without reservation. However, I know that some don't bother that much about that. I am sure they will enjoy this disc. The instrumentalists do a nice job, both in the accompaniment of Mead and in the instrumental items.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Tim Mead
La Nuova Musica

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