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The English Concert at the Wigmore Hall
17 Sep 2016

A double dose of Don Quixote at the Wigmore Hall

Since their first appearance in Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s literary master-piece, during the Spanish Golden Age, the ingenuous and imaginative knight-errant, Don Quixote, and his loyal subordinate and squire, Sancho Panza, have touched the creative imagination of composers from Salieri to Strauss, Boismortier to Rodrigo.

The English Concert at the Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Matthew Brook

Photo credit: Richard Shymansky


In this well-balanced, entertaining programme at the Wigmore Hall, the English Concert under their director Harry Bicket celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Spanish writer’s death with musical accounts of Quixote’s anarchic fantasy dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Thomas D’Urfey’s extravagant dramatic adaption of Cervantes’ novel was originally presented as three separate plays, lasting seven hours in total, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1694. Music was a standard addition to Restoration spoken drama and on this occasion Purcell provided the lion’s share with John Eccles and other less well-known composers contributing further songs and entr’actes. Selected songs were subsequently published, but the complete music from Don Quixote was never collected together and much of the instrumental and dance music is now lost. However, almost all of the songs have survived, and the English Concert presented some of those by Purcell which are included in the posthumous tribute to the composer, Orpheus Britannicus, interspersed with instrumental music from The Married Beau, another of the Theatre Royal’s 1694 productions.

Bass Matthew Brook showed real showmanship in his two arias: he relished Purcell’s earthy theatricality, every word was crystal clear and his bass retained beauty of tone even in the moments of exaggerated musical and dramatic bravura. ‘When the World First Knew Creation’ is sung by a galley slave, Gines de Passamonte, to thank Quixote for releasing him and his fellow criminals from imprisoned servitude. Brook remained poker-faced through this ode to his Redeemer - ‘When the word first knew Creation/ A Rogue was a top Profession;/ When there were no more in Nature but Four,/ There were Two of them in Transgression’ - relishing the pithy rhymes and letting his characterful bass convey the irony. ‘Let the Dreadful Engines of Eternal Will’, in which misguided Cardenio expresses his misery that his beloved Luscinda has abandoned him, was a tour de force of vocal rhetoric. Brook showed impressive flexibility in the florid madrigalianisms - ‘Within my Breat far greater Tempests grow’ - and the declamatory passages were imperious: ‘Ye pow’rs, I did but use her Name,/ And see how all the Meteors flame.’

Brook moved slickly between passions. The lowest reaches of his bass conveyed profound solemnity: ‘And now the Globe more fiercely burns,/ Than one at Phaeton’s Fall. There was touching melancholy in his lament, ‘Ah! where are now those Flow’ry Groves,/ Where Zephir’s fragrant Winds did play?’, complemented by an eloquent cello counter-melody and mournful lute. Then, anger vivified his grievance, ‘I glow, I glow, but ‘tis with hate:/ Why must I burn for this Ingrate?’ From vengeful resonance, Brook retreated to blanched despair: ‘Cool, cool it then and rail,/ Since nothing will prevail.’ Gesture, facial expression and posture all contributed to an utterly convincing account, and Brook’s eyebrows worked as hard as his voice to capture the caustic mockery of music and text: ‘And so I fairly bid ’em, and the World,/ Good Night.’

Anna Devin has a full-bodied soprano but at the start of ‘From Rosie Bower, where sleeps the God of Love’ there was a slightly harsh edge to the tone and the diction was unclear. The scene depicts Altisidora’s jealous Don Quixote as he is going to bed, feigning insanity in the face of his rejection of her love in favour of the Princess Dulcinea. With agility and athleticism Devin negotiated the vocal line’s large leaps of the first section of the five-part air, to the accompaniment of luthier William Carter, and enjoyed the rhythmic robustness of the following dance - ‘With a Hope and a Bound/ And a Frisk from the Ground,/ I’ll trip, trip like a Fairy’ - as Altisidora seeks to out-pirouette the dainty Dulcinea. In the recitative that followed, Devin’s soprano relaxed and her fears that ‘Ah! tis in vain’ were persuasively dramatic. She further demonstrated that she could shift smoothly through the changes of emotional-gear in the final sections, culminating with the extravagant avowal, ‘A thousand Deaths I’ll die,/ E’re thus in vain adore’.

Brook and Devin came together for the final number, ‘Since Times are so bad’, in which, returning to their home town, they are duped by the Duke that Dulcinea has been bewitched and that her release from enchantment depends on Sancho Panza subjecting himself to 3000 lashes, after which he will become Governor of the island of Barataria! The lure of social elevation inspire his wife and a Clown to song, and both singers entered vigorously into the spirit of the characters’ foolish but heady hopes for ambition and advancement.

The instrumental interludes were similarly spirited, with vibrant bow strokes bring the first Aire to life and the second Hornpipe fizzing excitedly. The Jigg was airy and light, and contrasted with a trumpet-less but resonant ‘Trumpet Air’ in which the energised bass line of Joseph Crouch and Jonathan Byers (cello) and Christine Sticher (double bass) added depth and dynamism.

Telemann’s Suite burlesque de Don Quichotte is a lively instrumental account of the penniless nobleman’s deluded adventuring. A ‘tone poem’ to rival Till Eulenspiegel, Quixote’s merry mishaps are vivaciously depicted and the diversity of colour and texture of Telemann’s characterful movements emphasises the chasm between the chivalric romancer’s fanciful imagination and humdrum reality.

The members of the English Concert made good story-tellers, drawing listeners into the narrative with an assertive Overture whose cadences were richly double-stopped and rhetorical in tone. The strings revealed their tender side in ‘Le Réveil de Quichotte’, their compound-time lilt gently nudging the knight from his dreams; then, a solo quartet’s sweet sighs nestled quietly beneath Danann McAleer’s decorously restrained narration, conveying Quixote’s deluded love for Princess Dulcinea. This was truly lovely playing by leader Nadia Zwiener, whose ornamentation was idiomatic and refined. A furious attack on ‘les moulin à vent’ showcased the group’s superb ensemble and precision, and bows flew vigorously in sweeping surges as Sancho Panza was tossed in a blanket for his master’s sins, after the latter had crept from an inn without paying his host for his hospitality. An erratic minuet represented the lurching canter of the Don’s exhausted horse, Rocinante - all lopsided accents and dynamic contrasts - followed by a more agile and fluid trio section, and the Suite closed with Quixote’s fitful dreams, ‘Le couché de Quichotte’, a light-fingered romp suggestive of the deluded Don’s heroic wishful thinking.

McAleer, seated centre, steered us beguilingly through the musical narrative, but one couldn’t help feeling that Telemann had done the work for him.

This was a performance of real vitality and freshness. There was much humour, both ribald and affectionate, but honesty and warmth too. An evening of delightful joie de vivre and high-spirited élan of which the fictional hidalgo would certainly have approved.

Claire Seymour

Henry Purcell: Suite - The Comical History of Don Quixote Z578 (excerpts) including incidental music from The Married Beau Suite Z603; Georg Phillipp Telemann: Ouverture-Suite - Burlesque de Quixotte TWV55:G10

The English Concert: Harry Bicket (director, harpsichord), Anna Devin (soprano), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone), Danann McAleer (narrator).

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 14th September 2016.

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