Monday, 13 June 2016

Henry Purcell: Fantasias

There is music where one has a sense of a composer communicating with his muse, leaving aside all thoughts of patrons, public renown, reputation, or celebrity. Examples are found often with Bach (Art of the Fugue, Goldberg Variations, the 48 preludes and fugues), with Beethoven (the late string quartets), Shostakovich (the string quartets, the preludes and fugues for piano) … and with Henry Purcell and his Fantasias for viols. By the time Purcell wrote his fantasias in 1680 when he was 21 years old, the consort of viols was already somewhat passé, and no one quite understands why Purcell wrote for what we would now call “period instruments”.

I came across the fantasies (“fantazias” as Purcell termed them) many decades ago, and they continue to fascinate me with their kaleidoscopic range of colour, tempo and harmony. The harmonies are often “post Schönbergian” in places, and this must have astounded any listeners – if there were any – in the 1680s. What a wealth of invention, and what a marvellous sense of a great composer revelling in his musical and contrapuntal skills. No challenge was left unopposed, viz the celebrated Fantazia upon one Note à 5.

Unfortunately, I now have only one recording of the fantasies, that by a viol ensemble that called itself Phantasm, recorded back in the early 1990s (I have just ordered a second version, with Jordi Savall). As far as I can judge, the Phantasm group is excellent, but it really will be good to have alternatives to compare; English groups can be somewhat prim and proper, and averse to throwing themselves into the music. Purcell's fantasias are rarely played today, probably because there are few viol consorts around, and players of later instruments (violins, violas, cellos) are terrified of being labelled musically incorrect. And the fantasias were not even published until 1927! But, ah, what magnificent music we find in the Purcell fantasias, the true musical ancestors of the late Beethoven and Shostakovich string quartets. We can think of the (paraphrased) remark attributed to Handel, when talking about Purcell: “Had he lived longer, we would all have been out of a job”.

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