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Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695): Songs and instrumental music

[I] "The Food of Love"
Paul Agnew, tenora; Anne-Marie Lasla, viola da gambab; Elizabeth Kenny, theorboc, guitard; Blandine Rannou, harpsichorde, organf

rec: Feb 2009, Paris, Temple Manin
Ambroisie - AM 185 (© 2009) (74'14")

[II] "O Solitude"
Andreas Scholla, Christophe Dumauxb, alto
Accademia Bizantina
Dir: Stefano Montanari

rec: July 17 - 22, 2010, Bagnacavallo, Chiesa di San Girolamo
Decca - 478 2262 (© 2010) (76'36")

[I] Francisco CORBETTA (c1615-1681) Caprice de chaconed; Henry PURCELL: A Morning Hymn (Thou wakeful shepherd) (Z 198)abf; Corinna is divinely fair (Z 365)abce; Ground in C (Z D221)e; I loved fair Celia (Z 381)abc; Aureng-Zebe, or The Great Mogul (Z 573): I see she flies meabde; If music be the food of love (Z 379a)abcef; If music be the food of love (Z 379c)abe; The Mock Marriage (Z 605): Man is for the woman madeabde; Not all my torments can your pity move (Z 400)ace; Now that the sun has veil'd its light, An Evening Hymn on a Ground (Z 193)abf; O! Fair Cedaria (Z 402)abde; O solitude, my sweetest choice (Z 406)ab; Oedipus, King of Thebes (Z 583): Music for a whileabce; On the brow of Richmond Hill (Z 405)abe; Pious Celinda goes to pray'rs (Z 410)abe; The earth trembled (Z 197)abcf; The fatal hour comes on apace (Z 421)abc; The History of Timon of Athens, The Man-Hater (Z 632): The Cares of Loversace; The Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian (Z 627): When first I saw Aurelia's eyesabde; Tyrannic Love, or The Royal Martyr (Z 613): Ah! How sweet it is to loveabde; What a sad fate is mine, A song on a Ground (Z 428)ac; When her languishing eyes said 'Love' (Z 432)ac; Christopher SIMPSON (1610-1669) Prelude in Db; Prelude in Eb; Robert DE VISÉE (c1658-1725) Prélude in d minord

[II] Henry PURCELL: Chacony in g minor (Z 730); Come, ye sons of art (Birthday Ode for Queen Mary) (Z 323): Sound the trumpetab; Strike the viola; Dido and Aeneas (Z 626): When I am laid in eartha; If music be the food of love (Z 379a)a; King Arthur, or The British Worthy (Z 628): Chacony; Fairest islea; What power art thoua; Now that the sun has veil'd its light, An Evening Hymn on a Ground (Z 193)a; O dive custos (Elegy of the death of Queen Mary) (Z 504)ab; O solitude, my sweetest choice (Z 406)a; Oedipus, King of Thebes (Z 583): Music for a whilea; Pausanias, The Betrayer of his Country (Z 585): Sweeter than rosesa; Pavan in g minor (Z 752); The Faery Queen (Z 629): One charming nighta; The Gordian Knot Unty'd (Z 597); Welcome to all the pleasures (Ode for St Cecilia's Day) (Z 339): Here the deities approvea

Only a short look at the tracklists of these two discs suffices to conclude that Paul Agnew and his colleagues have been the more adventurous in chossing pieces for their programme of music by Purcell, or - I should rather say - their programme around Purcell, because it is their aim to show his music in its historical context. In comparison Andreas Scholl and the Accademia Bizantina have limited themselves to evergreens from Purcell's large oeuvre. There are really no items in their programme which haven't been recorded many times before. Paul Agnew, on the other hand, has chosen several pieces which aren't often included in concert programmes or recordings.

If their is anything which always strikes the listener to Purcell's vocal music it is his brilliance in setting a text. In their liner-notes Paul Agnew and Anne-Marie Lasla emphasize the natural relationship between text and music, and they specifically refer to Purcell's adherence to the French style. He was well acquainted with it, and the preference of Charles II for French music was only a stimulus to incorporate French elements in his compositions. The inclusion of pieces by Francisco Corbetta and Robert de Visée makes sense: the former was Louis XIV guitar teacher and accompanied Charles II when he returned to England from his French exile after the restoration of the monarchy. De Visée took his position as Louis XIV's teacher, and his guitar pieces were collected by Princess Anne.

The performance of two pieces by the gamba virtuoso Christopher Simpson is also useful: his music is almost intirely based on ground basses, and that is something Purcell also often made use of. His famous and highly expressive song O solitude, my sweetest choice - to mention just one - is built up on such a ground bass. The bass part is played here on viola da gamba alone. It is one of the features of this disc: Paul Agnew and Anne-Marie Lasla point out how much the basso continuo in Purcell's music has a vocal character, and that it is important to choose the right scoring for the bass line in order to make Purcell's text expression to emerge. We hear viola da gamba, theorbo, guitar, harpsichord and organ in various combinations, and they are mostly well-chosen. Only some shifts in scoring within a piece are debatable.

But that is about the only thing there is to criticise here - apart from some moments when Agnew's singing has a bit too much vibrato, in particular in the first items of the programme. But the way he treats the texts and brings out every shade of meaning is highly impressive. Ah, what a sad fate is mine, Not all my torments can your pity move and A Morning Hymn are just some examples of highly expressive performances. There is not only French influence in Purcell's vocal music, but there are also Italian traits, and that comes particularly to the fore in pieces of a strongly declamatory character, like The earth trembled - about the earthquake on Golgotha - or the first section of The fatal hour comes on apace. Agnew states that the interpreter must decide on "the phrasing, the dynamics, the note lengths, the articulation, the respirations, with the aim of sticking closely to the text, to the music of its language, the rhythms of the consonants and to the meaning of the words, so as to highlight the poetry and its affects". He is very convincing in his decisions, and with Anne-Marie Lasla, Elizabeth Kenny and Blandine Rannou he has found the ideal partners to realise his objectives. They also play their solo pieces excellently, making this disc something to treasure.

The disc of Andreas Scholl is quite different, for various reasons. To start with, we only have music by Purcell here, and the pieces which have been chosen are far better-known. And here the instrumental accompaniment is not just a basso continuo group, but an orchestra of strings and wind with basso continuo. The vocal items are alternated with instrumental music, two Chacony's, a Pavan and incidental music for The Gordian Knot Unty'd. It is one of the genres to which Purcell contributed a considerable number of pieces.

The disc opens with If music be the food of love, one of the many songs for voice and basso continuo Purcell has written. This song exists in several versions; Paul Agnew presented two of them. The version which is catalogued as Z 379c is quite different from the best-known version Z 379a which Scholl sings and which also ends Paul Agnew's recording. The first section of 379c is far more declamatory, whereas the 379a is more in the manner of a lyrical song. The other song is O solitude, my sweetest choice, also performed by both singers. Here the difference between the two is most clear: Paul Agnew's performance is much more differentiated in text expression, in declamation and in dynamic gradation. Andreas Scholl is smoother, at the cost of text expression. Sweeter than roses is, like most of Purcell's most popular songs, from larger vocal works, in this case the incidental music for Pausanias, The Betrayer of this Country. It has largely the character of a recitative, and that requires a more rhythmically free interpretation and more differentiated treatment of the text than Scholl delivers here. Music for a while is another piece from incidental music, whereas Fairest isle and What power art thou are from the semi-opera King Arthur. The features of the performances of the other songs are present here as well.

There are also extracts from the Birthday Ode for Queen Mary, Come ye sons of art. 'Strike the viol' is lacking in subtlety, which is also due to the orchestra. At the words "touch the lute" all of a sudden the lute makes itself heard - just a matter of bad taste. 'Sound the trumpet' is alright, but I have heard it better. Christophe Dumaux's voice matches Scholl's well, and that is even more the case in the beautiful Elegy on the death of Queen Mary, O dive custos which is the best part of this disc. Now that the sun hath veiled its light is also one of the better parts in the programme, but again Paul Agnew wins here with a more differentiated and emotionally involving performance. The most odd part of this disc is the closing aria from Dido and Aeneas, 'When I am laid in earth'. By isolating the aria from the opera much of its impact is nullified anyway, but a performance by a male voice is utterly unconvincing. And Scholl's performance has no emotional impact whatsoever. That is also due to his undifferentiated treatment of dynamics; here and in many other pieces he sings too often forte. This also leads to a carictural performance of 'What power art thou' from King Arthur.

I am not impressed by this disc. That is not only due to Andreas Scholl's singing but also to the playing of the Accademia Bizantina which is often rough and short of subtlety. That is the case, for instance, in the closing ritornello of 'Sound the trumpet'. Instrumental pieces like the two Chacony's are also suffering from it. I also think the orchestra, with eight violins, two violas, viola da gamba, two cellos and two double basses, is too large for most of the repertoire on this disc. In the Chacony in g minor there are some odd and seemingly arbitrary dynamic contrasts. The ornamentation in the closing ritornello of 'Here the deities approve' is highly exaggerated.

So, all in all, I haven't much positive to say about this disc. In particular after one has listened to Paul Agnew and his colleagues it is hard to really appreciate the efforts of Andreas Scholl and the Accademia Bizantina. The booklet hardly gives any information about the music as it is mainly about Andreas Scholl's views on Purcell and his music. I wondered what this disc is about: Purcell or Scholl? We get two pictures of Scholl, at the title page and the reverse of the booklet respectively, another picture on page 2, a wide-screen picture on pages 14 and 15 and - not to forget - another picture at the back of the tray. Isn't this a little overdone?

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Accademia Bizantina

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