- Henry Purcell - Composer of the First Great English Opera [Recommended Recordings]
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Henry Purcell
Recommended Recordings

Dido & Aeneas
(Jonathan Arnold, Nathan Berg, et al; Les Arts Florissants; William Christie, conductor)
Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is one of the very few 17th-century works to have entered the operatic "canon" and developed a modern performance tradition before the late 20th century's early-music revival. For listeners who had grown fond of this opera in its "traditional" form, the period-instrument recordings of recent years have provided some odd surprises: an all-female cast (excepting Aeneas); a baritone Sorceress; singing in a style closer to a Restoration playhouse than Covent Garden. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, however, provide a stylish and lively period-instrument Dido with no casting surprises--to wit, the male roles are sung by men and the female roles by women, all of whom sound like classically trained singers. The only surprise, in fact, is how well the largely Francophone cast sings in English. (Only Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as the Sailor has a heavy accent.) Sophie Marin-Dégor is a nimble Belinda, Nathan Berg a virile Aeneas. While the Enchantresses are played for low comedy, Claire Brua portrays the Sorceress with snake-like slipperiness and venom; fast-rising star Véronique Gens gives us a Queen Dido combining regal dignity with youthful sweetness and emotion. (review by Matthew Westphal)

Essential Purcell
(John Mark Ainsley, David Blackadder, et al; King's Consort, King's Consort Choir, et al; Robert King, conductor)
The "Essential" Purcell? Well, you could get a bunch of critics to argue about that for a few days, but in the meantime, here is a sampler of highlights from the King's Consort's three admirable Purcell series: the Complete Odes and Welcome Songs, Complete Anthems and Services, and Complete Secular Solo Songs. There are, of course, some of Purcell's most-performed pieces (which probably are "essential"): Dido's Lament from Dido and Aeneas, "Sound the trumpet" from Come, ye sons of Art, Rejoice in the Lord alway (the "Bell Anthem," named for the string figure at the opening that sounds like pealing bells), the gently patriotic "Fairest isle, all isles excelling" (sung by a miscast James Bowman), and a selection from the funeral music for Queen Mary. There are also some delightful surprises--particularly among the little-known secular songs and church music. The plaintive "O fair Cedaria" gets a lovely performance by Barbara Bonney (a singer not usually associated with Purcell); tenor Rogers Covey-Crump (possibly the ideal high tenor for Purcell) sings the enchanting "If music be the food of love"; the church anthems "Let mine eyes run down with tears" and "Remember not, O Lord, our offences" have some startling harmonies as daring as any Monteverdi ever wrote. If you're unfamiliar with Purcell, this reasonably priced disc is a good place to start exploring without a big initial investment. (review by Matthew Westphal)

Odes For St. Cecilia's Day, etc
(Michael Chance, Rogers Covey-Crump, et al; Taverner Choir, Taverner Consort, et al; Andrew Parrott, conductor)
Andrew Parrott and his Taverner Consort, Choir, and Players have made some of the finest Purcell recordings to have appeared since the period-instrument revival began; unfortunately, most of those discs had been out of print for years. Happily, Virgin has reissued some of Parrott's best work on this reasonably priced two-for-one release. The performances aren't just exemplary, they're something of a landmark: in them Parrott pioneered the now-standard practice of using high tenors rather than falsettists on some of Purcell's low-lying "countertenor" parts. (One example is "Sound the trumpet," a duet for "high" and "low" countertenors from Purcell's ode Come, ye sons of art, sung by falsettist Timothy Wilson and high tenor John Mark Ainsley.) Excellent performances of the Funeral Sentences and Funeral Music for Queen Mary are here as well, but the centerpiece of this set is Hail, bright Cecilia!, the longest and most colorful of Purcell's odes in praise of the patron saint of music. There is some serious competition here--Paul McCreesh and Philippe Herreweghe have made superb recordings of this work--but Parrott edges them out. For example, alone among the ode's conductors on record, Parrott interpolates an organ solo amidst all of the text's praise of the organ (an instrument St. Cecilia was thought to have invented); he also provides appealing variety by using 12 different soloists (as Purcell did at the premiere). Those soloists are an impressive lot--they include Emma Kirkby, David Thomas, Paul Elliott and Charles Daniels (gently enchanting in the tenor duet "In vain the am'rous Flute"), and the Hilliard Ensemble's Rogers Covey-Crump, who gives an extraordinary rendition of the famous and fearsomely difficult air "'Tis Nature's Voice." (review by Matthew Westphal)

The Gresham Autograph
(New Chamber Opera Ensemble)
The Gresham Autograph is a manuscript in Purcell's own handwriting evidently prepared for giving recitals rather like the one on this disc. It's a collection of songs the composer extracted from larger works such as The Fairy Queen, the ode Hail, Bright Cecilia! and works in honor of Queen Mary, as well as some freestanding songs like the notorious "What can we poor females do?" All of the songs are arranged for one soloist, including many that were originally duets and trios. Purcell transposed a number of the works up for soprano from their original ranges--most notably "'Tis Nature's Voice" from Hail, Bright Cecilia!, originally for a countertenor (quite possibly Purcell himself). On this release, we hear three different sopranos, all stalwarts of London's baroque music scene: the assured Rachel Elliott, the gentle, sweet-voiced Libby Crabtree, and the vibrant Deborah York, whose rendition of "'Tis Nature's Voice" is a highlight. And there's an extra treat: several of Purcell's short pieces for keyboard played on a spinet (sort of a baby harpsichord) and a small 16th-century English organ with a distinctive timbre. The one piece of bad news: you'll have to listen through or around the recording to appreciate much of this. The combination of venue and recording quality tends to even out the nuances of volume in the singing (only the most obvious echo effects register), giving a nasal edge to the voices and exaggerating their (slight) vibrato somewhat. This is a well-performed program of some delightful Purcell songs. It's just unfortunate that the flat sound gets in the way. (review by Matthew Westphal)

Twelve Sonatas Of Three Parts
(Richard Egarr, Richard Gwilt, et al; London Baroque)
Henry Purcell published these proto-trio sonatas in 1683, when he was only 24. His stated aim was to bring Italian-style chamber music in the manner of Corelli to the English market. (Italian music wasn't entirely unknown in England at the time, but never mind.) Each four-movement sonata is only five to seven minutes long. The music has a brisk, almost compact quality that's heightened by the tight melodic interplay between the two violin parts. The minor-key sonatas have a sober nobility that never becomes ponderous, even in slow movements; the major-key works are fleet, even joyous, without ever seeming frivolous. London Baroque plays with a combination of energy, dignity, and pleasing tone that serves Purcell well--and sometimes brings an almost involuntary smile to one's face. (review by Matthew Westphal)


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