Friday, 31 August 2018

The Songs of Mr Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell, who died in 1695 at the age of 36, is one of the greatest of the lesser known composers. He wrote incidental music for plays, semi-operas, songs, trio sonatas, anthems, cantatas, fantasias, odes, and a great number of chamber pieces.

I have just been listening to a 2006 song selection sung by the delectable voice of Carolyn Sampson. Purcell was a master of English song, of exotic harmonies and complex modulations. He was also a master of the ground bass as heard, for example, in Dido's lament (from the opera Dido & Aeneas), or in the song “music for a while”. Accompanying Ms Sampson on her CD is a varied collection of olde instruments. Songs include the well-known: Sweeter than Roses, The Plaint, Music for a While, If Music be the Food of Love, Fairest Isle, and O Solitude.

On to a second Purcell CD where the German soprano Dorothee Mields is accompanied by the Lautten Compagney Berlin on a CD recorded in 2009. I prefer the band on this CD; one can have too much of plucking lutes, theorbos, and harpsichords; not too surprising that they all died out somewhat hastily. Ms Mield's attractive singing is interspersed with instrumental pieces, including two chaconnes, a musical form to which Purcell was most attached. Most of the songs are taken from Purcell's contributions to semi-operas, a patchwork of theatrical plays with songs and music. There is duplication between songs as sung by Mields and Sampson; both women are wonderful, but in the end I probably prefer Mields, who lingers less and has a more interesting and varied instrumental backing.

On to a third Purcell song CD where a French group, La Rêveuse, plays a selection of instrumental pieces, including trio sonatas by Purcell and the Moravian Gottfried Finger, a contemporary of Purcell and Handel, who settled in England. Many of the pieces on this CD feature Purcell's famous basso ostinato, a true signature feature of much of his music. The ten songs on the CD are all sung by the French soprano Julie Hassler, who has a lovely voice and the best English diction of the three sopranos so far. You can actually follow the words she is singing, which is not always true of Sampson or Mields. I greatly enjoyed this CD, recorded in Provence in 2007.

On a fourth Purcell song CD we switch to a Scottish tenor for the songs. Paul Agnew is recorded close-to, and sings often at the bottom of his register. With a principal accompaniment by a bass-viol, the overall sound comes over as somewhat lugubrious. The accompaniment is “economy-mode” — bass-viol, theorbo, and harpsichord. A few instrumental pieces are interjected into the songs but, frankly, this CD recorded in France in 2009 simply did not hold my attention and I quickly became tired of the gloomy sound. The CD cover is bizarre, with a masked, naked woman in a 19th century bathtub. The connection with Henry Purcell is not clear.

On to a fifth CD from my shelves, with Agnès Mellon accompanied by Christophe Rousset (harpsichord) and Wieland Kuijken (bass-viol, again). Yet another French recording from southern France (1992), albeit with a very basic accompaniment, with not even a theorbo in sight. Ms Mellon has a pleasant voice, and the two accompanists are highly proficient, if a little lacking in variety of timbre. The absence of plucking is welcome. (I know harpsichords are plucked, but they sound one up from the monotone lute and guitar family). The CD contains a good selection of songs, plus Purcell's trademark “grounds”. I enjoyed the 71 minutes of music.

A sixth CD features the Dutch baritone, Maarten Koningsberger accompanied by a solitary theorbo in a recording made in 2008. The pair get through 26 songs by Purcell, one after another, with no respite. I was fully prepared not to like this: a baritone and a theorbo, in Purcell? But I was quickly won over. Koningsberger has an attractive and expressive voice, and is the first singer of the six so far where you can follow the words as he sings, without frequent course to the libretto. Purcell's vocal writing is rarely straightforward, and with many of the singers above, even gluing oneself to the libretto is no guarantee of following the texts. A big thanks to Koningsberger for his diction and clear enunciation. With just a theorbo, and 26 songs one after another, you essentially get just the song, the whole song, and nothing but the song. Not such a bad thing, it turns out, since most of the songs are very short (as recorded here – typically between two and three minutes). The choice of songs eschews the standard “Best of Henry Purcell” selection, making this a highly useful CD for those wishing to explore Purcell's lesser-known oeuvre, an oeuvre that is pretty vast, despite him dying so young, alas. Interesting to note that, even back in the 17th century, “popular” music was obsessed with love, and sex. Plus ça change ….. Anyway, Mr Koningsberger and his theorboist won me over, despite my forebodings when I first loaded the CD on to its tray.

On to CD number seven and back to the soprano voice, featuring a 2006 all-Canadian recording with Karina Gauvin and the instrumental group Les Boréades. The CD contains 21 tracks, with a generous helping of instrumental interludes. Unlike Mr Koningsberger, Ms Gauvin sticks mainly to Purcell's best known songs. Her diction is admirably clear (unlike many other singers) and Les Boréades make a welcome contribution, and a change from the somewhat monotonous backing on some of the other CDs. This CD was — somewhat unexpectedly — a big hit with me. Good music, good singing, good accompaniments. And a nice rendition of the popular “When I am laid to Earth” with its ostinato ground bass played by Les Boréades.

CD number eight features Emma Kirkby 36 years ago in distant 1982, with a small backing group of a viol and pluckers, plus an occasional violin obbligato (Catherine Mackintosh). There is some lovely singing on this CD, and “The Plaint” with violin obbligato has probably never had a better performance than here. Ms Kirkby's pure young girl voice was a great hit during the final two decades of the last century, and it still comes over with good effect despite all that has happened since. The 16 tracks of songs and airs make for happy listening. There are no instrumental episodes. All in all, a CD I was surprised to enjoy so much.

Coming full circle, the final Purcell song and airs CD from my shelves returns to Carolyn Sampson, recorded live in London in 2015 with the usual small backing group. The lute, bass viol and harpsichord contribute instrumental interludes, some of them by Purcell's contemporaries. That is sometimes a plus in a song recital disk. Ms Sampson has a lovely voice but, as in her 2006 recital commented on above, I do have problems with following what she is singing, even glued to the libretto; lose your place, and you probably have to wait for the next song until you can start following again. Maybe this is because the Canadian, French and German singers above take more care over their English pronunciation, or maybe because Ms Sampson seems to indulge in a lot more ornamentation than the others. The lute plucks on solidly behind her, but I miss the more imaginative background accompaniment provided by some of the others in this round-up. There is a harpsichord suite with five movements, and a lute selection with three pieces; more plucking than in a commercial hen-house, and I really did not enjoy it.

In conclusion: The 17th century was a rich one for English music; the golden age was prolonged into the earlier 18th century with the importation of the Saxon Handel after which, apart from a few sparks from time to time, music in England went into a terminal decline that has lasted right up to the present. “Das Land ohne Musik” as someone once said. People — perhaps above all the competitive Americans — are usually looking for “the best” when one reviews nine different CDs of roughly the same repertoire. There is no “best” here. I would eliminate Paul Agnew, since it all is rather gloomy and depressing. I would also eliminate Maarten Koningsberger, reluctantly, since it's a CD for an excellent overview of Purcell's lesser-known songs, rather than a CD to sit back and enjoy. Despite being a fanatical admirer of Carolyn Sampson, I would probably eliminate her two CDs remarked upon here, partly on the grounds of unimaginative accompaniments and instrument choice, mainly on the grounds of frustration trying to follow the words she is singing. Which leaves me with one German, two French and one French Canadian to fully survive this current round-up. Fear not; I have many CDs of Purcell operas and semi-operas, plus Odes, fantasias, and Anthems, so I'll be returning (with pleasure) to Mr Henry Purcell in due course.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Renaud Capuçon's Encore CD - Capriccio

You probably need to be a dedicated fan of violin encores to listen to 21 of them, one after another, all in the space of 75 minutes. This evening I had meant just to sample Renaud Capuçon's 2006 CD Capriccio, but I ended up listening to every note, with considerable enjoyment. All of the 21 pieces on the CD are all-too familiar, with arrangements by Heifetz, Kreisler, Prihoda, and a few others. Composers range from Mendelssohn and Schubert, through to Strauss and Schumann, passing on the way Stravinsky, Debussy, and Korngold. Virgin Classics, and Capuçon, avoided the annoying habit of interweaving unknown contemporary pieces that no encore lover needs to bother with.

Of course, as well as having a dedicated fan listening, you need a really expert violinist playing to hold attention over 75 minutes of encore pieces. Renaud Capuçon's suave tone, expert technique and exemplary musicality show why he is one of my favourites of the modern violinists. He favours flowing tempi, no bad thing in music of this kind which can stagnate if the player wallows too much. Somewhat to my surprise, the CD appears still to be available — deservedly so, in my view. Lovers of violin playing should snap it up at once.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Handel's Alcina

As I recounted in this blog all the way back in 2009, I first came across Handel's opera Alcina – the love-lorn sorceress – back in September 2007 when I attended a performance at the Théâtre de Poissy. The theatre opened in 1937 with a performance of Gounod's Faust (I was not there), and its size and acoustics made it a natural venue for a concert performance of Handel's opera. The town itself seemed to contain a high proportion of people from south of Marseille, so it was difficult for a francophile North European like me to find somewhere to eat, either before or after the performance. But my car was still there after the end of the work, with all four wheels in place, so I was happy. The evening has stayed fixed in my mind, even nine years later. Immediately following that performance, conducted by the late lamented Alan Curtis, the work was recorded in Italy by pretty well the same forces I heard in Poissy. Joyce DiDonato was the sorceress, and the supporting cast included Karina Gauvin and Maïte Beaumont as Ruggiero.

DiDonato, as well as being a superb singer, can always act with her voice; her cries of “Traditore!” in the aria Ah! mio cor, schernito sei! rival Callas's cries of “Mori!” in Tosca. And you cannot get better than that. Three hours went quickly listening to Handel this Sunday. As is now my wont, I dispensed with the libretto with its tiresome “plot”, and just sat back and enjoyed the music, the playing, and the singing. I appear to have a rival recording of the work conducted by William Christie in 1999 with another all-star cast including Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, and Natalie Dessay. I really must take it off the shelf and give it an airing; a man cannot have too much Handel. My hang-up is the memory of the live performance I attended in Poissy with Alan Curtis conducting, plus Joyce DiDonato's characterisation of Alcina. A surfeit of sorceresses.

Addendum: since writing the above, I have listened to the William Christie recording, and I prefer it. Christie's direction is tauter, with a superior presence of rhythm; Alan Curtis comes across as a bit too laid back. And Christie has a superior cast: Curtis's Ruggiero, Maïte Beaumont, is outclassed by Christie's Susan Graham, and Curtis's Morgana, Karina Gauvin is no match for Christie's Natalie Dessay. The Alcinas are a bit more problematic; Curtis's Joyce DiDonato is superb, as is Christie's Renée Fleming. But Fleming, who was a pretty woman with a wonderful voice in 1999, suffers from the soprano diction syndrome where it's often hard to make out in what language she is singing — Italian, English, French, or Serbo-Croat. No such problem with the superior actress, DiDonato, who articulates clearly in excellent Italian. Alcina is very much an opera for the soprano voice, and the men are mainly cardboard cut-outs. Commendably, neither Christie nor Curtis resort to male altos, counter-tenors, or castrati (nor female baritones). 18th century audiences may have enjoyed freaky voices, but I do not. A pity Christie did not poach DiDonato for his recording, since then he really would have had an all-star cast and knocked the competition for six.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Gioachino Rossini's Cenerentola

It is not often you will find me sitting back enjoying an evening of 19th century Italian opera. But here I was today listening with great enjoyment to Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola. Handel in the 18th century, like Rossini in the 19th, were the Andrew Lloyd Webbers of their time (though with infinitely more talent). They wrote music for money, and therefore music that their fans would like, and pay for. Over 200 years since it was written, one can still sit back and enjoy Cenerentola. For me, no need for a libretto (let alone a DVD). In a good performance, the music and the singing tell you who are the villains, who are the heroes and heroines, who is sad, who is happy, who is noble, who is down-at-heel. It's easy-listening, sing-along music, but written by a supreme artist. No depths are plumbed; no heights scaled; we just enjoy the experience, tapping our feet on occasion. No harm in that.

The performance I listened to this evening was recorded in 1971 by the LSO conducted by Claudio Abbado, with an exquisite Teresa Berganza as Cinderella. It takes all your cares away. Rossini made it big in Paris, and one can understand the enthusiasm of the fashionable connoisseurs. Great stuff. Tempts me to embark on another opera evening soon.