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Henry PURCELL & John BLOW: "Elegy - Countertenor duets"

Iestyn Davies, James Hall, alto
The King's Consort
Dir: Robert King

rec: Jan 6 - 8, 2019, Alpheton (Suffolk), Alpheton New Maltings
Vivat - 118 ( 2019) (77'33")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Blow
Scores Purcell

John BLOW (1649-1708): Ah heav'n, what is't I hear; An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell; Paratum cor meum; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Bonduca, or the British Heroine (Z 574) (Sing, sing, ye druids); Come, ye sons of art (Z 323) (Sound the trumpet); Hail, bright Cecilia (Z 328) (In vain the am'rous flute); Incassum Lesbia (Z 383); O dive custos Auricae domus (Z 504); O solitude, my sweetest choice (Z 406); The History of Timon of Athens, The Man-Hater (Z 632) (Hark how the songsters); The Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian (Z 627) (Chaconne Two in one upon a ground; Since the toils and the hazards of war)

Rebecca Miles, Ian Wilson, recorder; Reiko Ichise, viola da gamba; Lynda Sayce, theorbo, guitar; Robert King, harpsichord, organ

It is certainly not the first time that Henry Purcell and John Blow appear together at the same disc. It is a logical combination as they were pretty close on a personal and musical level. Purcell was a singer in the Chapel Royal, and when his voice broke, he was appointed assistant to the royal instrument keeper, and then tuner of the organ an Westminster Abbey. The organist at the time was Blow. Soon Blow recognized the talent of his younger colleague, and decided to stand aside and leave his position to Purcell. When the latter died, Blow returned to his former position.

The present disc includes duets by both composers. Most of the duets by Purcell are taken from larger compositions, such as incidental music and Odes for special occasions. The most famous of them all is 'Sound the trumpet', from Come, ye sons of art, an Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne. She was much loved, and when she died in December 1694, it shocked the country. Many poems were written to express the general sadness. John Playford published three pieces, set by Purcell and Blow respectively. Two of them are settings of the same text, written by a certain Mr Herbert, about whom nothing seems to be known. Purcell used the original Latin text, Incassum Lesbia, Blow the English translation by Mr Herbert himself, No, Lesbia, no, you ask in vain. Both pieces are for solo voice. Purcell's O dive custos is a duet on a text by Henry Parker, a scholar from Oxford. Purcell effectively uses the harmonic possibilities of a scoring for two voices for a maximum expression of the text.

In his setting of Herbert's poem, Blow made use of a ground, a very popular device in English music. Purcell also used it frequently, as several pieces in the programme show. One example is O solitude, my sweetest choice. The text is part of a translation of La solitude by the French poet Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant (1594-1661). The translation was from the pen of Katherine Philips, an Anglo-Welsh translator and poet, who was highly regarded in her time. It comprises five stanzas of four and six lines respectively. The ground bass is repeated 28 times. It is generally considered one of Purcell's masterpieces, with quite some text illustration and a differentiated use of harmony. It is followed by an instrumental ground, the chaconne Two in one, upon a ground from the semi-opera Dioclesian, played here on two tenor recorders.

Blow's oeuvre is hardly explored, and that includes his collection of songs, which was published in 1700 under the title of Amphion Anglicus. From this edition Ah heav'n, what is't I hear is taken. It was originally part of Blow's Ode for St Cecilia's Day of 1691. Although Blow left a fair number of secular songs, most of his oeuvre is sacred, including a large number of anthems. In addition he composed some motets on Latin texts, and one of them is Paratum cor meum, a setting of Psalm 107. It is scored for two sopranos, but as they are only accompanied by organ, a transposition for lower voices is not a problem. That is what I assume is the case here. Again, Blow makes use of a ground bass.

Queen Mary's death came as a shock, and so did Purcell's death, almost one year later, in November 1695. Again, poems were written as a tribute to the English Orpheus, and some were set to music. John Blow composed a moving Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell, whose text is from the pen of John Dryden, for two voices, two recorders and basso continuo. It opens and closes with duets in two movements, embracing a solo in three sections.

This piece brings us to the question for what kind of voices the music recorded here was intended. Robert King, in his liner-notes, states that "Purcell is reputed to have had a good countertenor voice, and the quantity of his surviving music suitable for the male alto seems to be a good indicator of his fondness for this voice". Apparently he believes that 'countertenor' means 'male alto'. That is the voice type of Iestyn Davies and James Hall. The subtitle of this disc refers to "countertenor duets". However, can we be sure that 'countertenor' indeed refers to the male falsetto voice? In his liner-notes to another recording of Blow's Ode, Bruce Woods writes that at that time countertenors were "simply light tenors, singing almost entirely with the full voice and slipping into falsetto only for the very highest notes". They were probably closer to the French haute-contre than to what we call today a male alto. The range of alto parts in Purcell's music is such that some notes are uncomfortably low for male altos. The present disc bears witness to that as in some pieces the lowest notes don't come off very well. Obviously this is also due to the pitch; King opted for a'=415 Hz.

Whatever is the truth in this matter, I have enjoyed this disc. The music of Henry Purcell never fails to impress, and the pieces by Blow are of comparable quality. One would wish that more of his oeuvre would be performed and recorded. Iestyn Davies and James Hall are a good match. One could argue that their voices are probably a bit too similar. Sometimes I found it hard to be sure who of the them was singing. Unfortunately, the track-list does not specify the line-up of every single piece. Now and then they use a bit too much vibrato, but overall they keep it in check. I liked the ornamentation in 'Sound the trumpet', nicely depicting the sound of the trumpet. The recorders deliver fine performances.

Most pieces on the programme are rather well-known and available in other recordings. Blow's No, Lesbia may be the exception; at least ArkivMusic does not mention any other recording. Even so, this disc is recommendable to anyone who likes the music of Purcell and his English contemporaries.

Johan van Veen ( 2020)

Relevant links:

Iestyn Davies
James Hall
The King's Consort

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