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Carolyn Sampson
18 Mar 2015

Henry Purcell: A Retrospective

There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.

Henry Purcell: A Retrospective — Come All Ye Songsters

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Carolyn Sampson


Over half of the works presented were selected from the ‘Gresham Manuscript’, a book of songs mostly scribed by Purcell’s own hand which was compiled between 1692 and 1695.

A facsimile of the manuscript was published in 1995, Purcell’s tercentenary year; as its editors, Margaret Laurie and Robert Thompson, explain in their Introduction: ‘The purpose of the book is not clear, some believe that it was for Purcell’s own use as a singer, while others hypothesize that it was a “pupil’s” volume.’ In his interesting programme article, Andrew Pinnock notes recent research by Thompson that suggests that the Gresham manuscript was copied for Purcell’s pupil, Lady Annabella Howard, maid of honour to Princess (later Queen) Anne; the latter was an accomplished harpsichord and guitar player, and Annabella would have been expected to entertain the princess and perform alongside her. Pinnock suggests that the manuscript is ‘an idiosyncratic anthology reflecting Annabella Howard’s musical personality, allowing her to display her skills in performance and providing practice material of the highest imaginable quality’.

The Gresham manuscript contains the opening six items from Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen, which Princess Anne saw in Dorset Garden theatre in 1692; and it was with three numbers from this semi-opera that the recital began. ‘Come all ye songsters’ is a light dance for Titania’s revelling fairies, and Sampson’s pristine brightness and open sound affectionately evoked the sprites’ joyful merry-making. The busy accompanying textures of Elizabeth Kenny’s lute, Jonathan Manson’s bass viol and Laurence Cummings’ harpsichord added to the high spirits. In the instrumental playout of ‘Sing while we trip it’ each of the three accompaniments took primacy in turn, courteously passing on the musical baton with the courtly decorum suggested by the text, ‘Sing while we trip it upon the green; … Nothing offend our fairy Queen’. Sampson spun beautiful melodic arcs in ‘Ye gentle spirits of the air’, and the sunny repetitions of ‘appear, appear’ together with an enticing melisma, ‘Prepare’, would sure have tempted the spirits to ‘join your tender voices here’. The soprano demonstrated a relaxed flexibility and a warm lower voice, while her upper range carried beautifully.

The sparser accompaniment offered by Kenny’s lone theorbo highlighted the decorative melodic shapes of the opening lines of ‘The cares of lovers’ (from Timothy of Athens). Sampson summoned a vocal rhetoric to complement the subtle oppositions of major/minor tonalities, and was able to draw upon her varied palette of hues and excellent breath control to convey the erotic inferences of the text, ‘So soft, so gentle is their pain, ’Tis even a pleasure to complain.’ The vocal passagework and scuttling accompaniment at the start of ‘Fly swift, ye hours’ was clean and precise; but as the song expanded into a ‘mini-cantata’, Sampson deepened the dramatic intensity, bringing fervency to the poet’s plea to ‘Bring back my Belvidera’. The arioso section ‘Swifter than Time’ had a sweet lilt, but the recitative, ‘Soft peace is banish’d’, summoned great anguish. Sampson’s unhurried chromatic falls were perfectly tuned and the languid melismas exquisitely sighed. The sinking register of the final line evoked the poignancy of the poet’s pain as he ‘embrace[s] my chain’.

The florid anger of ‘Not all my torments’ shook us from our quiet reflections, while ‘From rosy bow’rs (from Don Quixote) thrilled with its unpredictability, sudden injections of pace and colour conjuring the cunning, feigned madness of Altsidora who tries, by presenting herself as a woman possessed by a frenzied passion, to lure Don Quixote from his beloved Dulcinea. Again, Sampson exercised masterly control over the song’s changeable rhetoric, by turns still then driven, accelerating towards the close with wild excitement. After the interval, ‘Let the dreadful Engines of Eternal Will’ from the same work similarly confirmed the soprano’s innate, well-judged theatricality, as she convincingly embraced the declamatory freedom of the music which shifts between arioso and recitative, intensifying the harmonic twists which evoke the mood swings of Cardenio, who has been deserted by Luscinda.

The light leaps of ‘I see she flies me’ ran on into the lamenting sighs of ‘What a sad fate is mine’. The ground bass of the latter was hypnotically entrancing, enhanced by delicate ornamentation and wonderfully expressive of the forsaken poet’s dilemma: ‘’Tis all I implore,/ To make me love less,/ Or her to love more.’ In ‘’Tis Nature’s Voice’ (from Hail, Bright Cecilia) Sampson showed how she could deepen the weight of her lower register and she used the chromatic contortions of the melismatic vocal line to express the power of the ‘mighty Art’ of music which ‘charms the Sense and captivates the Mind’. ‘Lucinda is bewitching fair’ (from Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge) was free and full of declamatory vigour.

Instrumental pieces were interspersed between the vocal items. Purcell’s C major harpsichord suite was played by Cummings with delicate restraint: the initial simple-two part textures were lucid, while the bass line in subsequent more complex movements was used effectively to provide direction, and there were some engaging rhythmic emphases in the concluding jig. Kenny alternated dryness and richness in numbers from Princess Anne’s guitar book. And, there was music from Purcell’s contemporaries too: Giovanni Battista Draghi’s ‘Italian Ground’ was impressively played by Jonathan Manson, his bass viol strumming airily then crooning melodiously, while Kenny sustained the upper line of Francesco Corbetta’s Passacaille with salient limpidity.

We ended where we began, with The Fairy Queen, as Sampson entreated us to harken the ‘echoing air’. The text, as with many of these songs, is fairly mundane: ‘Hark! hark, the ech’ing air a triumph sings,/ And all around, pleased Cupids clap their wings.’ But, Purcell was equally inspired whether setting the words of the greatest poets of the day — Dryden, Congreve — or a banal ditty. Sampson sometimes promoted the beauty of sound and grace of line over the clarity of the text: for example, the consonants were lost in the rapid repetitions and scotch-snaps of ‘Sing while we trip it’, and blurred by the assonance of ‘Let the dreadful Engines’ — frequently I found myself having to follow or check the text in the programme.

But, an occasional clouding of the diction did not make this recital any less beguiling, and the bewitchment continued beyond the concluding song of the programme, with two encores — ‘I attempt from love's sickness’ and ‘Fairest Isle’ — of artless magic.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Elizabeth Kenny, lute; Jonathan Manson, bass viol; Laurence Cummings, harpsichord. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 17th March 2015.

Henry Purcell — The Fairy Queen : ‘Come all ye songsters of the sky’, ‘Sing while we trip it on the green’, ‘Ye gentle spirits of the air appear’; The History of Timon of Athens: ‘The cares of lovers’; ‘Fly swift, ye hours’; ‘Not all my torments can your pity move’; The Comical History of Don Quixote: ‘From rosy bow'rs’, ‘Let the dreadful engines’; Aureng-Zebe, or The Great Mogul: ‘I see she flies me’; ‘What a sad fate is mine’; ‘Pious Celinda goes to prayers’; ‘Hail, bright Cecilia’; ‘’Tis Nature's Voice; thro' all the moving Wood’; Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge: ‘Lucinda is bewitching fair’; The Fairy Queen: ‘Hark the ech’ing air!’

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