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Iestyn Davies [Photo by Marco Borggreve]
17 May 2016

London Festival of Baroque Music 2016: Words with Purcell

As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.

London Festival of Baroque Music 2016: Words with Purcell

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Iestyn Davies [Photo by Marco Borggreve]


The words of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) convey the composer’s innate sensitivity to the English language — a perspicacity which was recognised during his lifetime and which continues to provide a model for composers committed to song and opera in English to the present day. As Benjamin Britten remarked, ‘Here surely is the way to make the English language live again in song’. And, in his Introduction to Peter Grimes Benjamin, Britten professed, ‘One of my chief aims is to try and restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom and vitality that have been curiously rare since the days of Purcell’.

But, Purcell was just one of bright crop of fresh talent working who benefited from the renewed flowering of music at the Restoration court, with its new theatres, a new court orchestra and new Chapel Royal. Matthew Locke, John Blow, Pelham Humfrey and Michael Wise, among others, were hailed as leaders of a burgeoning national school; as Purcell himself noted, ‘Poetry and painting have arrived to their perfection in our own country; music is yet but in its nonage, a forward child, which gives hope of what it may be hereafter in England, when the masters of it shall find more encouragement.’

In a programme entitled ‘Words With Purcell’ countertenor Iestyn Davies, accompanied by Jonathan Manson (bass viol), Alex McCartney (lute) and Jonathan Cohen (harpsichord/organ), allowed us to experience some of Purcell’s best known and much loved songs alongside the music of his contemporaries, and to imagine cross-influences and emulations — not only within the court of Charles II, but also from the European musical centres without.

Pelham Humfrey’s ‘Wilt thou forgive that sin’ sets John Donne’s elliptical text in which the pun which recurs at the end of each of the three stanzas — ‘When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done’ — suggests that autobiographical reflection on the transience of artistic achievement (‘I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun/My last thread, I shall perish on the shore’) co-exists with the speaker’s more obvious supplication for forgiveness for that Original Sin that he has not committed but merely inherited. The twists and turns of doubt were wonderfully expressed by the subtle chromaticism and major-minor juxtapositions of the organ, viol and lute accompaniment, descending to low realms in the central verse, while Davies’s beautiful arioso line revealed the emotive strength of Humfrey’s melodic voice and a feeling for the accentuations of words to rival that of Humfrey’s pupil, Purcell.

The metaphysical questing continued in William Croft’s well-wrought ‘What art thou? (A Hymn on Divine Musick)’ where Davies’s fluid countertenor engaged dramatically with Manson’s viol as the latter roved and delved. After a series of questions, the acceleration of the final five lines suggested growing certainty, and climaxed with an exquisite whispered apotheosis: ‘But either thou art Heav’n, or Heav’n is thee.’ Jeremiah Clarke’s ‘Blest be those sweet regions (A Divine Hymn)’ brought forth more animated viol playing while Davies floated the attractive Italianate, triple-time line, with its repetitions and beguiling sequences.

John Blow was represented by ‘No, Lesbia, no, you ask in vain’, a funeral ode, setting Mr Herbert’s verse, on the occasion of the death of Queen Mary II. This number afforded Davies the opportunity to demonstrate nimbleness and purity of sound as he negotiated the florid melodic line. A repeating decorative flourish made visceral the ‘sorrow’ of ‘ev’ry Nymph and Swain’ who ‘Hang down their Heads, and weep!’, while extended melismas on ‘Lesbia’, underpinned by a chromatic bass line, communicated the agony of a ‘Loss can’t be exprest’. ‘Sighs’, ‘groans’ and ‘throbbings’ were painted onomatopoeically but Davies’s shaping of the final phrases conveyed the serene composure of the Queen’s subjects in their conviction that their monarch ‘shines beyond the Skies’.

Continental influences were represented by Robert de Visée (c.1655-1732/33) — lutenist, viol player, singer and composer, and guitar teacher to the Dauphin, at the court of Louis XIV — and Giovanni Battista Draghi (c.1640-1708), who travelled to England in 1663 to join an ensemble of Italian musicians established under royal patronage.

De Visée was a disciple of Jean Etienne Vaudry Sayzenay and the latter is named as the Portuguese composer’s ‘Master’ in the manuscript of 1699 which is his legacy. Alex McCartney revealed the strikingly modern rhetoric of the Prélude: Entrée d’Apollon (after Lully), Sarabande and Courante from this manuscript; McCartney was supremely sensitive to the elegant gravity of the idiom — the slow courante in the French style epitomised the prioritisation of atmosphere over virtuosity — and explored interesting low registers and unexpected metrical accents with variety of tone and diversity of strums. My only misgiving was that the material seemed to suggest an intimacy which it was difficult to satisfy in the large nave of St John’s.

Draghi’s ‘Italian Ground’ (from The Delightful Companion of 1686) revealed a plushness and Italianate idiom in which the delicacy of the viol line deepened in weight towards the close. In contrast, Christopher Simpson’s Division in D major (from The Division Viol of 1665) revelled in its English idiosyncrasies. ‘Division’ referred to temporal partitions: the aim was to play 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 and so on notes for each note of the original theme. Simpson’s own preface explains that the division bow arm was to be kept absolutely rigid and straight at the elbow, with almost all movement made solely by the shoulder joint, in radical distinction to European practice. In this performance by Mason and Cohen the ever-increasing intricacy was compelling.

Purcell was naturally centre-stage in this programme, though, and here Davies’s warm, rounded tone came into its own. The flawlessness of the countertenor’s technique enables rather than prohibits expressive depth, but the effortlessness of his delivery did conjure a persuasive ease, preventing numbers such as ‘O Solitude’ from indulging in sentimentality. Davies knows when to let the text speak and when to prioritise musical gesture: the open vowels at the close of ‘O Solitude’ were exploited to imbue the song with ecstatic force, and the four verbs — ‘strike’, ‘touch’, ‘wake’, inspire’ — which open the birthday ode of Queen Mary of 1694, ‘Come, ye Sons of Art, away’, burst forth with vigour.

Occasionally I found Mason’s organ accompaniment too penetrating in the acoustic of St John’s. But, in ‘’Tis Nature’s Voice’ Davies’s crystalline tone gave definition to the vocal explorations, while ‘Lord, what is man’ was laden with emotive emphasis of the text, complemented by exuberant viol motifs. ‘Music for a While’ certainly beguiled cares, but its impact was rather diminished by the tardy reappearance of many audience members after the interval. Should Davies have waited until all were seated? I can understand his impatience to proceed but perhaps on this occasion frustration should have taken second place to pragmatism.

‘Sweeter than Roses’ benefitted from a more settled ambience, and the dissonant aching quality was beautiful wrought combining seductive lilt with telling ‘edge’. After the virtuosity of John Weldon’s ‘An Alleluia’ (for so long attributed to Purcell) the thoughtful meanderings of the ‘Evening Hymn’ were delivered directly and without undue interpretative meddling.

Throughout this programme, the performers let the music speak for itself: beautiful and stylish, their technical polish blended with the expressive intensity which so defines the music of this period. Quite simply, and at the risk of indulgent hyperbole, Davies’s voice is one of utter beauty and sweetness; what an unrivalled joy it is to indulge in its loveliness.

Claire Seymour

Performers and progamme:

Iestyn Davies — counter-tenor, Jonathan Manson — bass viol, Alex McCartney — lute, Jonathan Cohen — harpsichord/organ.

Henry Purcell — ‘O solitude, my sweetest choice’, ‘Strike the viol, touch the lute’ (from Birthday Ode for Queen Mary 1694), ‘Here the Deities approve’ (from Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day 1683); Robert de Visée — Selection from the Vaudry de Saizenay MS (1699); Pelham Humfrey — ‘Wilt thou forgive that sin’ (A Hymne to God the Father); William Croft — ‘What art thou?’ (A Hymn on Divine Musick); Giovanni Battista Draghi — The Italian Ground (fromThe Delightful Companion 1686); Henry Purcell — ‘Tis Nature’s voice’ (fromOde for St. Cecilia’s Day), ‘Lord, what is a man (A Divine Hymn), ‘Music for a while’ (from Oedipus, King of Thebes); Jeremiah Clarke — ‘Blest be those sweet regions’ (A Divine Hymn); Henry Purcell — ‘Sweeter than roses’ (from Pausanias, the Betrayer of His Country); Christopher Simpson — Division in D major (from The Division-Viol 1665); John Blow — ‘No, Lesbia, no, you ask in vain’ (The Queen’s Epicideum); John Weldon attr. Henry Purcell — An Alleluia (ed. Benjamin Britten); Henry Purcell — ‘Now that the sun hath veiled his light’(An Evening Hymn on a Ground).

St John’s Smith Square, London. Sunday 15th May 2016

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