Purcell Realisations from Orpheus Britannica and Harmonia Sacra
Felicity Lott & Susan Gritton (sopranos)
Sarah Walker (mezzo-soprano)
James Bowman (countertenor)
John Mark Ainsley, Ian Bostridge & Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenors)
Richard Jackson & Simon Keenlyside (baritones)
Graham Johnson (piano)
Recorded 510 January 1995 in Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: September 2006
CD No: HYPERION DYAD
CDD22058 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 24 minutes
Hyperion’s website – though not, curiously, the booklet or packaging – declares that this is a ‘complete’ set of Britten’s Purcell Realisations. I’m not completely sure of the accuracy of this, and were it to be totally complete, it would have to have included the Britten/Imogen Holst editions of “Dido and Aeneas” and the “The Fairy Queen”. Furthermore, a live performance of a cantata, “When Night Her Purple Veil Had Softly Spread” sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and accompanied by Britten and members of the Alberni String Quartet appears on a disc from BBC Music/IMG Artists (BBCB 8003-2) in the “Britten the Performer” series. Also, Britten accompanied James Bowman in a Decca recording of “Sweeter than roses”, a song which does not appear on Hyperion.
But what we have is a collection of forty songs and duets in realisations that date from between 1939 and 1971, the majority of which were made in the mid-1940s, in the wake of the 250th-anniversary of Purcell’s death, which fell in 1945.
Much of this music must have been barely known – if at all – at that time, and so whilst nowadays we would not expect the sonority of a grand piano as accompaniment, Britten’s versions brought these marvellous songs to wider recognition not least through his own performances with Peter Pears. Sadly, they hardly feature in the otherwise extensive Britten/Pears discography.
Hyperion has gathered a distinguished group of singers whom Graham Johnson accompanies with consistent sensitivity and insight.
Britten realised Purcell’s figured bass in his own characteristicmanner; whilst respecting the harmonies, he did not eschew from adding figuration and counter-melodies which serve to heighten the word-setting and point up Purcell’s fertile melodic writing.
It is Bowman who has the first song – “The knotting song” – and over twenty-four years on from his 1972 sessions with Britten, he doesn’t sound – perhaps inevitably – quite so comfortable and poised. Indeed, his high notes come over as somewhat effortful. His other contributions find him more secure – he delivers a poignant “Not all my torments”.
There are then three sets of songs, two individual ones, and six duets on the first disc, all taken from the “Orpheus Britannica”. They are all sensibly distributed between the different singers, thus ensuring vocal variety.
Felicity Lott and Susan Gritton supply attractive soprano tone – an especially lovely “If music be the food of love” from the former.
Sarah Walker’s characterful – more overtly operatic – mezzo is put to good use in “Mad Bess”, which has an extraordinary accompaniment with tremolos and other dramatic effects.
Perhaps the strongest showing, however, comes from the tenors and baritones, who, without exception are on fine form. The well-known duet “Sound the trumpet” from the ode “Come, ye sons of art” is given with great aplomb by Anthony Rolfe Johnson and John Mark Ainsley. Again, the accompaniment is striking, with busy counterpoint. It is odd to hear this as a tenor duet, but countertenors were still something of a rarity when Britten made his realisation. Properly refined countertenors, that is, not the cathedral-type male alto species, once memorably described by a cathedral organist as “a baritone who’s blown a gasket”.
Britten and Pears may be sampled in five songs (BBC/IMG BBCB 8006-2) and hearing their distinguished partnership in this repertoire is instructive, with Pears’s unique delivery and Britten’s fluidity at the keyboard.
The second CD has items from “Harmonia Sacra” – some rather more extended than their secular counterparts – and Ian Bostridge gives a superb performance of “The Queen’s Epicedium”, responsive to all verbal and musical inflections.
Sarah Walker is joined by Ainsley and Simon Keenlyside for “Saul and the Witch of Endor” which is like a miniature operatic scene and may well have influenced the structure of Britten’s own Canticles.
This is a dramatic piece, with the singers taking on the various characters and combining for an opening and closing ‘chorus’. Atmosphere and strong characterisation are in plentiful supply in this performance, at just under 12 minutes, the longest single item in this collection.
Two sets of divine hymns, which include the familiar “Evening Hymn” and “Alleluia” are joined by other individual songs and the set concludes with a dark rendition of “Let the dreadful engines of eternal will” from Simon Keenlyside.
This is a mid-price reissue and, with its natural sound, helpful notes and complete texts, is highly recommendable.