"A Musical Flood, but Not Unwelcome"
by Alex Ross
Jan. 14, 1996, New York Times
Another anniversary, another dead composer, another deluge of recordings and memorabilia. If the composer in question were anyone but Mr. Henry Purcell, you might hear mutterings of discontent. The interminable festivities for the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death in 1992, the current unmotivated obsession with Beethoven, and the fast-approaching double bonanza of Schubert and Brahms in 1997 raise fear that classical programming of the future will devolve upon one ultra-famous Viennese composer each year. That these anniversary love-fests are linked to deaths as well as births suggests that contemporary musical culture is engaging in something uncomfortably close to necrophilia.
But there is reason to feel differently about recent commemorations of Purcell, who died on November 21, 1695, at the age of 36. First, this anniversary has not exactly inundated listeners, at least on this continent. There have been an agreeable number of Purcell-related concerts and even a few opera stagings, but nothing approaching the saturation level of the Mozart year. The composer remains, for many, a fairly esoteric commodity. Most listeners know a few famous pieces, like the Chaconne in G minor and Dido's Lament from "Dido and Aeneas," but who can claim familiarity with all 17 royal odes and welcome songs? Furthermore, advances in scholarship have created ever-changing vistas on even his most familiar works.
So this huge spread of recordings, most emanating from England, is not a swamp of excess but a field of discovery. Some of the music has hardly been touched since Purcell's time. Collectively, it makes a convincing argument that Purcell is not merely the greatest of English composers (the faintly praising moniker given to him in the past) but also a pivotal figure in European musical history. Purcell accomplished as much in his 36 years as the similarly short-lived Mozart or Schubert. Like them, he found an unearthly blend of beauty and sadness, and he compulsively projected his personal voice--what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called Purcell's "abrupt self"--even when circumstances called for ordinary handiwork.
Almost nothing is known of Purcell's life: he was born sometime in 1659, he lived and worked in London, he died of unknown causes. But the personality present in his music rivals that of any continental Baroque master. He was in part a conservative artist, steeped in Renaissance polyphony and the consort music of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. His works are thick with archaic chromaticism and scholastic counterpoint. At the same time, he took notice of modern styles, sampling French dances and Italian song. Indeed, he is one of the first great melodists: his lyricism is startlingly clear, clean, fluid, lucid. But he adamantly avoided the rote formulas of the Baroque. He reconciled old and new on his own ruthless terms.
The tension between simple and complex in Purcell's music exists on all levels. He takes the passing dissonances endemic to polyphony and gives them almost expressionistic power in a diatonic context. A strong example is the chorus "Soul of the world" in "Hail! Bright Cecilia," in which radiant triads blossom from towering clusterlike chords. He also sets his sumptuous harmony against strict rhythmic regularity. His favorite device is the chaconne, or ground bass, in which a simple string of notes recurs obsessively in the continuo. He similarly built structures on ordinary ditties, simple scales, solitary tones. These are the tricks of a supreme musical intellect.
What follows is a lightning tour of dozens upon dozens of rcordings that have become available. A few repeat the errors of past Purcell performances, which made the composer too precious and parochially English. Others introduce new scholarly muddles. But for the most part, the standard is high; Purcell has profited from the bustling early-music scene in London. All of the music in some way matters: the composer's bold signature is everywhere. In this remarkable case, exhaustiveness is entirely apt.
"Dido and Aeneas" is Purcell's most popular work, probably also his finest. With uncanny economy and control, it passes through lyric, dramatic and grotesque-comic stages to the matchless lamentation of "When I am laid in earth," in which the queen of Carthage bids farewell and claims immortality in a single measure. Purcell's art of simplicity reaches its peak in the four pulses on a single tone--short-long, short-long--with which Dido sings "Remember me." This telegraphed cry arrives across three centuries with its emotion still urgent. Underneath the ethereal melodic line, chromatic harmony churns relentlessly, the ultimate music of fate.
Christopher Hogwood's new recording in Oiseau-Lyre represents the state-of-the-art of the original-instrument approach. His very fine cast is led by the sopranos Catherine Bott and Emma Kirkby and the high, pure tenor John Mark Ainsley. The Academy of Ancient Music stops at nothing to create illustrative effects indicated in the score, most delightfully the "horrid music" that ends the scene of the witches. But Mr. Hogwood wears down the ears with incessant thunder-machine effects--such things should be left to live performances--and Ms. Bott's Lament fails to create a sense of occasion at the end.
Among many other original-instrument efforts, Richard Hickox's "Dido" on Chandos is interesting for its choice of a large-voiced, emotive soprano in the female lead. Maria Ewing, unfortunately, does not possess the absolute control of tone needed in this music. With the sultry young baritone Karl Daymond as Aeneas, this might have been an alluring performance on stage, but it comes up short on recording. I would instead recommend Trevor Pinnock's authoritative "Dido" on DG Archiv; Anne Sofie von Otter's Dido reaches the aristocratic passion missing from most "authentic" versions.
With music impelling the action throughout, "Dido" is Purcell's only opera in the modern sense. But he was intensely active as a theatrical composer in other ways, particularly in his last years. Aside from myriad incidental songs and instrumental pieces, he worked on four major projects that could be called musical plays: "King Arthur," "The Indian Queen," "The Fairy Queen" and "Dioclesian." Notwithstanding the literary contributions of John Dryden in the first two and reminiscences of Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream" in the third, the texts are often weird and silly, making modern performance problematic. One wistfully imagines the mature operatic style Purcell might have developed if he had lived longer.
"The Fairy Queen" has cropped up nearly as often as "Dido"; Roger Norrington, Ton Koopman, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and William Christie have all tackled it. Mr. Harnoncourt's recording on Teldec stands out for its first-rate cast: Barbara Bonney, Sylvia McNair and Michael Chance are three of the strongest Purcell singers working. The score lurches between meditative lyricism and boisterous grotesquerie: the cultivated Concentus Musicus Wien is more adept at the former, while Mr. Harnoncourt interposes characteristically bracing, distracting accents. The best-balanced "Fairy Queen" remains The Sixteen's, on Collins Classics.
Those who saw "King Arthur" performed by Mr. Christie's Arts Florissants at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last spring will be curious about a companion recording on Erato. Unfortunately, the conductor's bold accents, elaborate ornamentations and fondness for odd noises here seem overdone, exaggerating French Baroque influence. The mysterious apparition of the Cold Genius, which provoked Purcell to write one of the eeriest arias in all opera, is undercut by a willfully slow tempo. An older Archiv recording of "King Arthur" by Mr. Pinnock is more naturally musical.
Mr. Hogwood's new recording of the "Indian Queen" on Oiseau-Lyre has nearly the same superior cast as in his "Dido," but the hazy sound of the Academy of Ancient Music pales next to the color and clarity of the more intimate Purcell Simfony on a Linn Records release. There, Catherine Mackintsoh conducts, and Tessa Bonner, Peter Harvey, Catherine Bott and Rogers Covey-Crump flawlessly sing the major roles.
SONGS AND INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC
The English language has changed much over three hundred years, but Purcell's mastery of its tones and rhythms still strikes home, as his solo songs generously attest. Take the theater song "Music for a while": the melodic line embodies Dryden's image of musical hypnosis, with the voice lingering seductively on a melisma (single syllable stretched over many notes) as the accompaniment suggests sinister motives underneath. Or the devotional Evening Hymn, a perfect sonic illustration of deepening twilight: one of Purcell's most mesmerizing ground basses droops gently down as the voice floats upward into dark blue air.
Unfortunately, Purcell's songs have often been inextricable from mannered styles of English singing. White-voiced sopranos and less-than-dulcet countertenors have long claimed them, although modern scholarship suggests that Purcell often favored a high tenor or a wide-ranging bass. So it is good to welcome the lustrous American soprano Sylvia McNair in a thoughtful grouping of Purcell songs and instrumental interludes, accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music. Those who need all of Purcell's songs at their fingertips should invest in the Hyperion label's three-disk survey of Secular Songs, with outstanding performances by Barbara Bonney, Rogers Covey-Crump and James Bowman.
Purcell's instrumental music, most significantly his sonatas and fantasias for violins and viols, shows a very different face of his genius. Here the emphasis is not on the tension between airy melody and dense instrumentation, but on a contrapuntal hall of mirrors opening up within the instrumental texture itself. Most of this music was written when the composer was in his early twenties, proclaiming his mastery of fugal modes and at the same time electrifying them with touches of Baroque fantasy. No 20th-century composer has gone further in probing and pressing the ambiguities of the tonal roots of music.
One of the finest recordings of the Purcell year is Hesp[GRAVE]erion XX's collection of the Fantasias. The dark, sumptuous tone of Jordi Savall's consort of viols is ideal. Compare this disk with prior Savall releases of Matthew Locke's consort music and John Dowland's "Lachrimae" and you will recognize Purcell's Renaissance devotion. The London Baroque, on Harmonia Mundi, takes a similar approach to the Sonatas in Three and Four Parts, savoring every dissonance. Those who favor a more brisk, upbeat approach should turn instead to the Purcell Quartet on Chandos.
By comparison with the chamber works, Purcell's music for harpsichord and organ sounds curiously tame. This is especially strange since the composer earned his living as an organist and keyboard player; his greatest inventions were apparently lost in flashes of improvisation. Nonetheless, excellent work has been done by Kenneth Gilbert in the harpsichord suites and Davitt Moroney in a recently discovered collection of quirky harpsichord pieces ("The Purcell Manuscript").
SACRED AND OCCASIONAL
There is little to do but stand in helpless awe before Robert King's nineteen disks of odes, welcome songs, anthems and services for the Hyperion label. Mr. King has an intuitive understanding of Purcell that produces convincing performances even when his musicians seem to be working on scant rehearsal time. His spacious "Hail! Bright Cecilia," for example, is the best available, and it comes with a brilliantly peculiar ode written for the trivial birthday of an ailing 11-year-old prince. In the survey of anthems, the third volume, with some of Purcell's most austere, harmonically gnarled youthful settings, makes a good start. "The Essential Purcell" chooses telling highlights from the entire Hyperion series.
One of the peaks of Purcell's career was the music he wrote for the funeral of Queen Mary in 1694, less than a year before his own demise. A recording on Collins Classics presents a new edition by the scholar Bruce Wood: Purcell's spare, haunting choral anthems and ceremonial pieces for brass, filling gaps in an older service by Thomas Morley. There is also a slow, ominous march for muffled drums whose appropriateness is not validated by all scholars. An exacting performance by The Sixteen justifies the new arrangement all the same.
Purcell's church music can be approached from many other angles. Several of the finest early anthems appear with the Te Deum of 1694 on a superb Virgin disk with the Taverner Consort and Players led by Andrew Parrott. Those who find English import CD's prohibitively expensive can turn to the Oxford Camerata's budget-priced anthems on Naxos. A "Harmonia Sacra" anthology on Archiv mixes anthems and devotional songs, with the vibrant Gabrieli Consort and Players benefiting from spectacular sound. That disk emphasizes that the sacred and the secular, the serious and the sensual, are never far apart in Purcell's world.
Who was this man? From what little we know, he seems to have been affable, quick-witted, at times imperious. He had a wife, children, steady success until his early death. So why the tremendous sadness in his music? Why does time slow and twilight fall, why do shadows lengthen? There are no ready answers. The mystery of Purcell is the mystery of music itself.
At least ten Purcell books appeared in the anniversary year. All of them are handicapped by extreme paucity of biographical data: sentences begin with constructions like "It can scarcely be doubted" and "It is more probable than not." Here are the most interesting of the lot:
- Henry Purcell," an illustrated biography by Robert King (Thames and Hudson), is the best introduction to the composer. Judicious capsule summaries of English history mingle with loving, knowing descriptions of Purcell works major and minor.
- "Purcell Remembered," edited by Michael Burden (Amadeus Press), compiles documents of Purcell's life and adds appreciations by contemporaries and successors. (Someone once told Handel that his oratorio "Jephtha" brought Purcell to mind; Handel modestly replied, "O got te teffel, if Purcell had lived he would have composed better music than this.")
- "The Purcell Companion," a compendium of scholarly essays also from Amadeus, wavers between lively description and tedious dissection. Roger Savage's essay gives an excellent picture of the wild stage machinery and other dramatic devices in the theater of Purcell's time.
- Martin Adams's "Henry Purcell: The Origins and Development of His Musical Style" (Cambridge University Press), traces the conservative revolution in Purcell's compositional method.
"Dido and Aeneas"; Trevor Pinnock conducting the English Concert; DG Archiv 427 624-2; "The Fairy Queen"; Harry Christophers conducting The Sixteen; Collins Classics 70132 (2 CD's); "King Arthur"; Mr. Pinnock conducting the English Concert; DG Archiv 435 490-2 (2 CD's); "The Indian Queen"; Catherine Mackintosh conducting the Purcell Simfony; Linn CKD 035; "The Echoing Air: Music of Henry Purcell"; Sylvia McNair, soprano; Philips 446 081-2; The Secular Solo Songs; Robert King conducting the King's Consort; Hyperion 66710, 66720, 66730; Fantasias for the Viols; Hesp[GRAVE]erion XX; Astr[AIGU]ee E 8536; Sonatas in Three and Four Parts; London Baroque; Harmonia Mundi 901438, 901439; "The Purcell Manuscript"; Davitt Moroney, harpsichordist; Virgin 72435 45166 2; Anthems and Services, Vol. 3; Mr. King conducting the King's Consort; Hyperion 66623; "Hail! Bright Cecilia"; Mr. King conducting the King's Consort; Hyperion 66349; "The Essential Purcell"; Mr. King conducting the King's Consort; Hyperion KING 2; Complete Funeral Music for Queen Mary; The Sixteen; Collins Classics 14252; Funeral Sentences, Various Anthems; Philippe Herreweghe conducting the Chorus and Orchestra of Collegium Vocale; Harmonia Mundi HMC 901462; Te Deum, Anthems; Andrew Parrott conducting the Taverner Consort, Choir and Players; Virgin CDC 5 45061; Anthems and Organ Music; Oxford Camerata; Naxos 8.553129; "Harmonia Sacra"; Gabrieli Consort; DG Archiv 445 829-2.