The rather innocuous and generic term ‘song’ belies, in this context, the extraordinary variety and imagination Purcell invested in his settings of texts even when, as in the case of most of those featured here, they were intended for public performance as a diversion within a stage play. They are not strophic settings, repeating the same music for each verse, but through-composed. Not all the writers are well-known today (John Dryden and Abraham Cowley are the prominent exceptions) but their expressive, Baroque texts repay close attention.
Anna Dennis is wonderfully alive to the shifting moods and ideas expressed in order to tell a story or to evoke intense emotion – such as the way that notes are lingered upon seductively at the beginning of ‘Sweeter than roses’ which erupts into erotic fervour at “Then shot like fire all o’er”; or the yearning desperation of Lawes’s ‘No Reprieve’ with telling sighs and pauses.
Dennis’s delineation of the settings is such that she has no need to declaim them to make points; rather, the subtlety and clear projection does that for her by compelling the listener’s attention. ‘Urge me no more’ comes to life in her characterisation of some striking imagery conjured by the words, whilst despite the mournful temper of ‘In the black dismal dungeon’ she still sings with brightness and hope, as also in the intimate ‘Celia’s fond, too long I’ve lov’d her’. The celebrated Evening Hymn is also quite joyful and outward, where it could really do with more crepuscular hush or awe, but the dignity and directness of her readings suit the nature of the remaining songs, letting the words speak for themselves without forced rhetoric.
Sounds Baroque, under Julian Perkins’s direction (switching among harpsichord, spinet and chamber organ) further endows these settings with great alacrity, but by no means upstaging the singer. The ensemble comes more clearly into the spotlight for the instrumental passages of ‘How blest are shepherds’ from King Arthur, making for an upbeat climax to the recital as a whole. The colours of a guitar and a harpsichord respectively provide engaging contrast in Suites by two Italian contemporaries of Purcell, Corbetta and Draghi.
James Akers contrives some reticent and dainty tones for the former’s C-major Suite, with a lulling ‘Chaconne’ whose repeated sequences come to sound quite modern. Perkins’s rendition of Draghi’s Suite in E-minor imbues its dances with French-like ornamentation, which stands out by comparison with the more robust declamation of the surrounding songs, and the performance of its descriptive movement ‘The Complaint’ on the lute stop does indeed lend that section something of a whining tone. These are not the most obvious in-fillers for a collection of English songs, but one offsets the other fruitfully, drawing together a range of styles and forms, and juxtaposing public and private worlds winningly.