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Henry Purcell [Source: Wikimedia]
19 Sep 2014

Purcell: A Retrospective

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra launched the Wigmore Hall’s two-year series, ‘Purcell: A Retrospective’, in splendid style. Flexibility, buoyancy and transparency were the watchwords.

Purcell: A Retrospective

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Henry Purcell [Source: Wikimedia]


The eight singers (two sopranos, three tenors and three basses) assumed a variety of solo roles during the evening — roles which made contrasting technical demands and required a range of vocal registers and colours — and also united to form the ‘chorus’. The sixteen instrumentalists proved similarly chameleon in providing diverse accompanying textures and material in order to capture a gamut of dramatic moods. Christophers himself was the embodiment of musical joyfulness, guiding his players with lightness and grace.

The principal work presented was Purcell’s The Indian Queen which is usually termed a ‘semi-opera’. In fact, it contains much less music, dancing and spectacle than the composer’s other semi-operas, such as King Arthur, and is perhaps better described as incidental music for a play. Theatre politics and rivalries were responsible for the less elaborate form: the underpaid and disgruntled actors of the United Company (which, in the preceding few years, had staged Dioclesian, King Arthur and the Fairy Queen to great acclaim), led by Thomas Betterton, petitioned the King for permission to set up their own breakaway company. Ironically, their licence was granted by Sir Robert Howard, monitor of theatres for the Crown, who had been promised a revival of one of his dramatic works if he denied the rebels their request; as a consequence, the text of The Indian Queen was heavily trimmed, resulting in a much less satisfactory drama than Howard and his brother-in-law, John Dryden, had created 30 years earlier.

Set in Mexico (the Indies of the title) and Peru, it tells the tale of Montezuma’s ascent to the throne of Mexico, a convoluted path to power which embraced both fierce military battles and intense amorous rivalries. Some sprightly instrumental dances — played with clean, airy textures and sprightly rhythms — and a catch, ‘To All Lovers of Music’, introduced the sung Prologue in which an Indian girl and boy wake to find their country at war. Framed by a bright Trumpet Tune, the interchanges between tenor and soprano were supple and there was an easy fluidity as the individual sections unfolded. In the Act 2 masque of Fame and Envy, in which the Indian Queen Zempoalla’s inner conflicts are given outward expression — as her glory is eroded by jealousy and remorse — was characterised by the crystalline counterpoint of strings, recorder and trumpet and the harmonious choral blend supporting the solo voices.

Ismeron’s impressive Act 3 prayer, sung by a bass, presented an impressively diverse array of moods; initially the high-lying declamatory lines were embellished by David Miller’s elaborated theorbo continuo, but as the incantatory passion mounted, expressive word-painting (‘Earthy dun that pants for breath’) and flowing melisma (‘That along the cliffs do glide’) conveyed the growing intensity of feeling. The chromatic ascent, ‘From thy sleeping mansion rise/ And open thy unwilling eyes;’ was beautifully controlled and sensitive. Yet more new colours evolved in the ensuing soprano aria, ‘God of Dreams’, the walking bass of the bassoon providing a composed foundation for the oboe’s counter-melodies. After a contrapuntal Trumpet Overture, the duet for Aerial spirits was one of the highlights of the evening, the pure, glowing sopranos of Julie Cooper and Kirsty Hopkins complementing each other melodiously: dignified and elegant, the sopranos drew forth the telling nuances of the score, such as the shift to the minor tonality and slight pause in the phrase, ‘Cease to languish then in vain/ Since never to be loved again’.

Following the symphonic Air (Act 4), the final chorus of Act 5 was exquisitely crafted, inspiring pity and compassion for the historical sacrificial victims. Throughout, the choral passages were notable for clean textures and a seamless interplay of voices; diction was uniformly superb. Both singers and instrumentalists observed Purcell’s sometimes idiosyncratic rhythms precisely, but without rigidity; there were affecting contrasts between passages of legato grace and the vibrant syncopations of the scotch-snaps — the latter were repeatedly complemented by bite and brightness in the violins.

Born the son of a musician in Charles II’s retinue, Purcell himself went on to serve a series of regal employers — Charles II, James II and William and Mary — as chorister, organist, assistant organ builder, keeper of the King’s instruments, and supplier of festive anthems and odes for royal coronations, birthdays, weddings and repatriations. The first half of the concert presented some of these court commissions.

‘Swifter, Isis, swifter flow’, written to celebrate the return of Charles II to London from his annual sojourn at Newmarket, was only the second ode Purcell wrote. Once again, changes of tempi and mood were convincingly rendered; after the solemn opening symphony, with its subtly inflected falling chromatic harmonies, the fleet instrumental runs were agile and vibrant. The two recorders accompanying the bass solo ‘Land him safely on her shore’ evoked a wistful mood; the tenor air ‘Hark, hark! Just now my listening ears’ was especially engaging, commencing with a ringing vocal appeal, foreshadowing the bells which welcome back the returning monarch: ‘Let bells ring, and great guns discharge,/ Whilst numerous bonfires banish the night.’ The text of the concluding couplet of ‘Welcome, dread Sir, to town’ — ‘Your Augusta [London] will never be/ From your kinder arms debauched’ — was sensitively conveyed, such delicacy contrasting with the imperious and Italianate florid bass recitative of the subsequent air, ‘But with as great devotion meet’. An even, flowing legato enhanced the duet ‘The King whose presence’, the vocal lines once again underpinned by a smoothly running instrumental bass. The rich, grand chorus, ‘Then since, Sir, from you all our blessings do flow’, made for a grand, triumphant closing cry: ‘Long live the King!’

A sombre soprano duet ‘O dive custos Auriacae’, composed on the death of Queen Mary, followed; once again the soprano melodies mingled and rippled silkily, the surprising discords and angular lines adding piquancy to the sentimental lament. At its first performance The Indian Queen was followed by Daniel Purcell’s The Masque of Hymen. Here, the order was reversed, the masque ending the first half of the concert; ribald comedy — the married couple complain to the God of matrimony: ‘You told us indeed you’d heap blessings upon us,/ You made us believe you, and so have undone us.’ — preceding touching tragedy.

The concert was initiated in rousing fashion by cellist Joseph Crouch leading his fellow instrumentalists in a boisterous rendition of the catch ‘God save our sov’reign Charles’, an animated song which wryly refers to Charles’s dislike of his brother James, a Roman Catholic convert, who was exiled by Charles: ‘Preserve York’s duke, our King’s illustrious brother:/ Who to his pious votes denies his hand, I pray for him too, but wish him out o’ th’ land’!

Purcell was only 36 years old when he died; as with Mozart, Schubert and other prodigious musical talents of the past, we can only wondered ‘might have been’ had his musical voice not been so prematurely silenced. Yet, despite this, Purcell’s legacy is unique in English music and on-going; on this delightful occasion, Christophers and his musicians — the singers placed behind the instrumentalists but projecting efficiently — unquestionably communicated the delicate beauty and affecting power of his music.

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Henry Purcell: ‘God save our sov’reign Charles’; ‘Swifter, Isis, swifter flow’ (Welcome Song for King Charles II); ‘O dive custos Auriacae domus’; Daniel Purcell: The Masque of Hymen; Henry Purcell: The Indian Queen.

The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra. Conductor, Harry Christophers; Violin, Sarah Sexton, Huw Daniel, Graham Cracknell, Daniel Edgar, Jean Paterson, Sophie Barber; Viola, Martin Kelly, Stefanie Heichelheim; Cello, Joseph Crouch, Imogen Seth-Mith; Oboe/Recorder, Anthony Robinson, Catherine Latham; Bassoon, Sally Jackson; Trumpet, Robert Farley; Harp, Frances Kelly; Theorbo/Lute/Baroque Guitar, David Miller; Organ/Harpsichord, Alastair Ross; Soprano, Julie Cooper, Kirsty Hopkins; Tenor, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, Matthew Long; Bass, Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, Stuart Young. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 17 th September 2014.

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