25 Jan 2020

A French Affair: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

A French Affair, as this programme was called, was a promising concept on paper, but despite handsomely sung contributions from the featured soloists and much energetic direction from David Bates, it never quite translated into a wholly satisfying evening’s performance.

Much of this seemed to be the result of hasty planning of the back-of-an-envelope kind. The influence of 17th-century French musical manners on the English Baroque has been an oft-explored recipe, and this snapshot of stylistic assimilation by Henry Purcell was given partial illumination through La Nuova Musica’s choice of anthems and motets associated with the English and French royal courts.

Matters were not helped by the printing of the entire text to Purcell’s 1690 Arise, my muse only to abandon this opulently scored music after its opening movements without any explanation. Some joined up thinking would have helped here, and since the work is one of Purcell’s least performed birthday Odes, it would have been welcome to hear more of it, especially as two uncredited trumpet players were redundant for the rest of the evening. Musically, it was satisfying enough in the sort of way that a film trailer leaves you wanting more, and its opening ‘Symphony’ immediately flagged up Purcell’s borrowing of the French-style overture.

Other Purcell selections included the 1685 Coronation anthem I was glad when they said unto me, curiously performed here with just five singers (plus organ continuo). However impressive singing one-to-a-part maybe, vocal ensembles rarely achieve perfect blend and balance in live performance. The absence of a uniform quality aside and an unvarying vocal weight and tempi, this festive anthem was conceived for the choirs of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal, so this ‘semi-skimmed’ rendition meant that any sense of ceremony and gravitas largely had to be imagined.

Purcell’s music fared better in the wonderful marriage of words and music that is My beloved spake, one of the composer’s finest anthem-symphonies and blest with an undeniable theatrical instinct and youthful vitality. That said, some more joie de vivre could have enlivened its spritely “alleluias” (where evocations of courtly French dances didn’t quite emerge), but that’s not to ignore Nick Pritchard mellifluous tenor depicting a flourishing fig tree or the solo group celebrating “the voice of the turtle”.

No greater contrast could have been achieved beforehand than in the dreamlike repetitions of Cassandra Miller’s newly commissioned work Sleepsinging here receiving its world premiere. Setting a text by the Restoration poet Thomas Betterton, this Canadian composer draws inspiration from two songs belonging to Purcell’s Fairy Queen and melodic reimaginings from Christopher Lowrey and Nick Pritchard for whom the work is written. This collaboration comprises a series of slow descending canons (and not so subtle portamenti) given to the string players, against which smoothly fashioned meditative vocal lines add to its trance-like mood and culminates in a closing paragraph of rapt beauty.

More involving musically was a superb account of John Blow’s Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell forming the emotional centrepiece of the evening. Both Lowrey and Pritchard successfully negotiated its awkward tessitura at the start and brought much refinement to the warbling of Dryden’s Lark and Linnet, as did two merrily chirping recorder players Sarah Humphrys and Rebecca Austen-Brown. Throughout, this heartfelt tribute was a thoroughly absorbing affair, whether reflective or rejoicing, voices and instruments in perfect accord.

Not so the trio of women’s voices that sang Jean Baptiste Lully’s Dixit Dominus, a devotional setting, possibly originally intended for performance by Parisian nuns, was rendered with variously unforgiving and woolly tone. It was, otherwise, an excellent choice not least in underlining the dotted rhythms and expressive harmonies that Purcell would later adopt. More persuasive was Charpentier’s extended Passion motet Le Reniement de St Pierre, a dramatic portrait of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ to which La Nuova Musica responded with an intensity of expression marked by strong individual characterisation and stylish direction.

It was good to hear church music from two composers seldom heard beyond the confines of our cathedrals. From the supposedly vain Pelham Humphrey (whom Samuel Pepys considered ‘an absolute Monsieur’) was a poignantly sung Like as the hart. Across the channel came Jean Phillipe Rameau’s Lenten motet Laboravi clamans where five voices outlined its contrapuntal manner embellished with tasteful ornamentation. The programme concluded with Rameau’s ravishing quartet Tendre amour’ from Les Indes galantes, now glowing with some much-needed warmth.

David Truslove

La Nuova Musica: David Bates (director), Christopher Lowrey (countertenor), Nick Pritchard (tenor)

John Blow: Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell,Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Le reniement de St Pierre,Pelham Humfrey: Like as the hart,Jean Baptiste Lully: Dixit Dominus,Cassandra Miller: Sleepsinging, Henry Purcell: Arise, my muse, I was glad when they said unto me, My beloved spake, Jean Phillipe Rameau: Laboravi clamans, Les Indes galantes Tendre amour

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 23rd January 2020.