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Concert reviews

Purcell Day

Keyboard music by Purcell & his contemporaries
Jean-Luc Ho, harpsichord
concert: Feb 10, 2017, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

[in order of performance] William BYRD (1543-1623): My Lady Nevels Grownde; Jean-Henry D'ANGLEBERT (1628-1691): Prélude in d minor; Henry PURCELL (1659-1595): Suite in d minor (Z 668); Voluntary for double organ in d minor (Z 719); Luigi ROSSI (1597/98-1653): Passacaille in a minor; Maurice GREENE (1696-1755): Voluntary in a minor; Henry PURCELL: Sonata in a minor (Z 794); anon: J'avais cru qu'en vous aymant; Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687): Ouverture Le bourgeois gentilhomme; Henry PURCELL: Suite in g minor (Z 662); Jean-Henry D'ANGLEBERT: Passacaille d'Armide

"Orpheus Brittanicus & Friends"
Alex Potter, alto; Patrick Ayrton, harpsichord
concert: Feb 10, 2017, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

John BLOW (1648/49-1708): Sabina has a thousand charms; Tell me no more; Theatre tune - Jigg - Ground; Why does my Laura shun me (The grove); Pelham HUMFREY (1647-1674): A hymn to God the Father (Wilt Thou forgive that sin); Henry LAWES (1595-1662): Love's fruition; Matthew LOCKE (1621-1677): Bone Jesu, verbum Patris; Henry PURCELL: An Evening Hymn (Z 193); Fantasy and Ground; Welcome to all the pleasures (Z 339) (Here the Deities approve); If music be the food of love (I) (Z 379a); If music be the food of love (II) (Z 379c); We sing to him (Z 199); What hope for us remains (Z 472)

Purcell: King Arthur, or The British Worthy, semi-opera in 5 acts (Z 628)
Simon Robson, reciter; Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
concert: Feb 10, 2017, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg

Every year the Organisation for Early Music, which is responsible for the Festival Early Music Utrecht, puts on a day devoted to one composer. From 2011 to 2016 the central figure was Johann Sebastian Bach. Last year his place was taken by Antonio Vivaldi, and this year Henry Purcell. He was the main composer in England in the second half of the 17th century, and some of his works are famous in our time, such as his only opera Dido and Aeneas, his Funeral sentences and some of his songs, especially Music for a while. However, large parts of his output are not often performed, certainly not outside Britain. One has to conclude that he probably needs to be ranked among the lesser-known composers. Could that be the reason that the concerts during the Purcell day, at least in Utrecht (on Sunday the same programme was performed in Amsterdam), were not sold out?

That was especially striking in the case of the first concert: the French harpsichordist Jean-Luc Ho was to perform a programme of harpsichord pieces by Purcell and some of his contemporaries. Harpsichord is not everyone's taste, and Ho is not a household name. Purcell is also not particularly associated with keyboard music. Even so, it was a bit disappointing that the audience was rather small. Unfortunately it didn't get what was promised. Ho had performed his programme the previous night elsewhere, and while leaving the venue he left his scores behind. Obviously it was too short notice to collect them, so he had to change the programme and play the pieces he could find at the internet. Only a couple of pieces by Purcell were played, and in addition he mainly performed French music. That was not that much of a problem as Purcell's keyboard music is clearly influenced by the French style, but considering that this part of his oeuvre is little-known, an opportunity was missed to demonstrate the good quality of his keyboard works. Moreover, the identity of the pieces Ho played was not announced; an up-to-date list was available only after the concert. Halfway during the recital I could see the list on the website on my smartphone. As a result I cannot go into detail about the programme and the way it was performed. However, my general impression was quite positive. Ho, whose disc devoted to keyboard music by William Byrd I have reviewed positively, is a fine player, who is probably at his best in more intimate repertoire. Most pieces in the programme were not of the spectacular kind. There was a nice rhythmic drive in Byrd's My Lady Nevels Grownde, which opened the programme. It is a challenge to play Purcell's Voluntary for double organ on the harpsichord, but it came off here very convincingly. Ho effectively used the registration to create a 'bigger' sound, bridging the gap to the organ. Another nice piece was the anonymous J'avais cru qu'en vous aymant, and the recital ended with d'Anglebert's Passacaille d'Armide. It was fitting to close with a piece, based on a basso ostinato, as this was a favourite form of English composers, known as ground.

That came also to the fore in the second concert I attended: a recital by Alex Potter, one of the world's best male altos of today, and Patrick Ayrton at the harpsichord. Several songs in the programme are based on a ground. Again, the programme was not entirely devoted to Purcell. Other English composers were also represented: Henry Lawes, Matthew Locke, John Blow and Pelham Humphrey. That was nice, not only because this way Purcell was put into his historical context, but also because these composers are even less familiar than Purcell, and especially their vocal compositions. Henry Lawes is a good example: he has written numerous songs, but they are seldom performed and very few of them are available on disc. Most of his songs were written for the theatre, and that came perfectly off in Potter's performance. Many of Purcell's songs are equally written for the theatre, although a number of them were posthumously published as separate songs. That allows various ways of performing them. Very interesting was Potter's decision to sing two different versions of the same text: If music be the food of love. First we heard the most familiar, strophic setting; it was followed by a setting in a more free style, like an Italian monody. One could easily take it for an extract from an opera, and that was underlined by Potter's performance. The programme was presented with inimitable British humour, which went down well with the audience. Some pieces provoked such a presentation, but there were also more serious pieces, such as Locke's Bone Jesu, verbum Patris, which includes unexpected melodic turns and an individual use of harmony, which is what one expects from Locke, known as a rather self-willed composer. At the occasion of his death Purcell composed What hope for us remains now he is gone. Pelham Humphrey is another composer, whose oeuvre is rather unusual, and who does not receive the attention he deserves. A hymn to God the Father is a good specimen of his art. The concert ended with one of Purcell's most beautiful pieces, the Evening hymn, sung with great subtlety by Potter. I should not forget to mention the fine contributions of Patrick Ayrton, not only in his role of accompanist, but also in his solo contributions, and even in an improvisation on four notes, given to him by members of the audience. As an encore Potter sang Fairest isle, one of the most beautiful songs from the semi-opera King Arthur. That was the work which was performed by Vox Luminis, and was the major event of the Purcell Day.

King Arthur belongs among Purcell's better-known works. It includes songs which are sometimes sung as separate pieces; I already mentioned Fairest isle. It is not so easy to perform the entire work. The reason is that it is a semi-opera, a typically English genre. The music encyclopedia New Grove gives this definition: "A play with four or more separate episodes or masques which include singing, dancing, instrumental music and spectacular scenic effects such as transformations and flying." I wonder whether this work has ever been performed really complete, with the entire spoken text, dances and scenic effects. It would probably be far too long for a live performance. Vox Luminis presented the complete music by Purcell, with spoken texts which connected the various episodes. As its director, Lionel Meunier, explained during an on-stage talk before the performance, the text is often needed for the music to make any sense, as Purcell in some cases illustrates an episode in the story. Some parts of the text were quite long, but thanks to Simon Robson that was no problem at all, as he told the tale in an eloquent manner. There was also a good coordination between him and the performers. There was some staging, but very decent and moderate; there was no scenery, just some movement from the singers across the stage. It was quite effective, though, and the humorous elements didn't miss their effect. It was helpful that the texts - spoken and sung - were available in translation through supertitles.

We know Vox Luminis as one of the world's best vocal ensembles in the realm of sacred music. However, even though I would not claim that its singers are natural actors and don't expect any of them to make a career in opera, they did quite well here. A piece like this is always in danger of being vulgarized through an exaggeration of elements in the story. Fortunately the performers avoided any cheap effects. The music always came first, and in that respect there was absolutely nothing to complain. As the programme did not mention which singers took which role, I can't go into detail about the performances of the individual singers. In the battle scene tenor Robert Buckland made an excellent commander-in-chief, Sebastian Myrus did very well as the frozen Genius. There were some outstanding contributions of the sopranos, and Fairest isle received a fine performance from Zsuzsi Tóth. The instrumental ensemble was also excellent, and as Purcell's music is hard to resist, especially in his use of grounds, there was also much to enjoy in the purely instrumental passages.

Even in this form, the whole piece took about two and a half hours. But there was not a dull moment, and the performers rightly received long and standing ovations.

Despite some misfortune, this Purcell Day was a success, and will hopefully contribute to a more complete picture of one of the greatest composers of the 17th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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