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Henry PURCELL & Matthew LOCKE: "Orchestral Works"

Vox Orchester
Dir: Lorenzo Ghirlanda

rec: Sept 2 - 6, 2018, Lugano, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19075900362 (© 2019) (67'40")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list
Score Locke
Scores Purcell

Matthew LOCKE (1621-1677): The Tempest; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): King Arthur (Z 628); The Fairy Queen (Z 629); The Prophetess, or the History of Dioclesian (Z 627)

Jan Nigges, recorder; Jonas Zschenderlein, Judith von der Goltz, Jakob Lehmann, Won-Ki Kim, Lena Rademann, Christian Voß, Alexandre Turmel, Anna Kaiser, Pablo Griggio, violin; Nadi Perez Mayorga, Yoko Tanaka, Hsu-Mo Chien, viola; Karl Simko, Julia Nilsen-Savage, cello; Luis Miguel Arias Polanco, double bass; Sanghee Lee, bassoon; Mauro Pinciaroli, lute; Alexander von Heißen, harpsichord

Music for the theatre takes an important place in the oeuvre of Henry Purcell. It shows quite some variety, and goes from a full-blooded opera, Dido and Aeneas, to instrumental pieces and songs for plays which largely consist of spoken texts and to which other composers may also have contributed. Although some of Purcell's theatre music is well known, especially Dido and Aeneas and some semi-operas, a considerable part is seldom performed and recorded. Some songs are quite popular, and that was already the case in Purcell's own time, which explains why they were published separately in two collections under the title of Orpheus Britannicus.

The instrumental pieces can be performed in the form of suites, more or less comparable with the suites from operas by French composers, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, which are often performed and recorded today. The German ensemble Vox Orchester, directed by Lorenzo Ghirlanda, has followed this concept in a programme of instrumental music from Purcell's best-known semi-operas, King Arthur and The Fairy Queen. The third piece in this genre, The Prophetess, or the History of Dioclesian, is less well-known.

The title of this disc is a little misleading. Basically there was no such thing as 'orchestral music' in the 17th century. The orchestra was not a fixed entity: instrumental ensembles were put together according to the need of the moment. It seems unlikely that the ensembles which participated in theatrical performances, were as large as the Vox Orchester in this recording: nine violins, three violas and two cellos. The use of cellos is questionable, as this instrument was still not very common in England in the second half of the 17th century. It is known that Purcell never made use of a double bass, and therefore its involvement in these performances is untenable.

In addition to music by Purcell, the Vox Orchester plays the instrumental music Matthew Locke contributed to the play The Tempest. This belongs among the better-known parts of the composer's output, alongside the consort music. It comprises nine movements, among them the 'Curtain tune', a clear reference to the theatre. It ends with 'a canon 4 in 2', the kind of piece we also find in Purcell's theatre music. Whereas this work consists only of instrumental pieces, the three semi-operas by Purcell also include vocal pieces. Obviously these are ignored, except two: from King Arthur we hear 'How blessed are the shepherds' and 'Fairest isle'. Considering that Purcell himself arranged some of his songs for the harpsichord, there is no fundamental objection against an instrumental performance.

Setting aside the size of the orchestra and the use of cellos and double bass, I am not very happy with the way the music by Locke and Purcell is played here. The Vox Orchester is undoubtedly a fine ensemble, as I noted in my review of a disc of German cantatas by Christoph Prégardien. One of the features of its playing, strong dynamic accents, are very appropriate in this kind of music, but seem out of place here. In my view, there is a strong connection between music and language in the baroque era, and the differences between English and German should have consequences for the way instrumental music is played. One of the early recordings of the Freiburger Barockorchester was also devoted to theatre music by Purcell, and there I noted the same features. I find the dynamic accents produced here rather exaggerated and unnatural. Their impact is further enforced by the relatively large number of players. I think that Vox Luminis, in their recording of King Arthur, are far more convincing and come much closer to the style of Purcell and his contemporaries.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Vox Orchester

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