Sunday 11 November 2012

Wimbledon Music Festival - Purcell Pageant

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland
The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas
Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland
This year's International Wimbledon Music Festival has as its title A Music World Fair with the festival concerts and events celebrating music from all over the globe. For the opening concert, on Saturday 10 November at St. John's Church, Wimbledon, Festival Director Anthony Wilkinson had chosen to start firmly in England with an all Purcell programme. A concert performance of Dido and Aeneas concluded the programme with Susan Bickley and Njabulo Madlala in the title roles. The first half consisted of music from two of Purcell's odes, with one unexpectedly delightful extra.

The chorus was the Academy Choir under their conductor and founder Andrew Edwards. The choir are a local Wimbledon group which uses a mixture of amateur and semi-professional singers. The orchestra was their own Academy Baroque Players, a group of 18 professional musicians playing on period instruments. Both are fine groups but I have to admit that one of the attractions of the concert was the fine line up of soloists. In addition to Bickley and Madlala, Robin Blaze sang the Sorceress and Malin Christensson sang Belinda. All the soloists sang in the first half, along with the distinguished counter-tenor James Bowman, who sang Music for a While; the delightful extra to which I referred.

The concert opened with the symphony and opening chorus from Celebrate this Festival, Purcell's Ode for Queen Mary's birthday in 1693. Despite having all be recorded by Robert King, Purcell's Odes and Welcome songs are still not sufficiently well known. They contain some of his grandest music, written for court occasions. For this ode, written for an orchestra which included oboes and trumpets, Purcell cheated somewhat and re-cycled the overture from Ode for St. Cecilia's Day written in 1692.

After a nicely crisp account of the overture, the choir were joined by Madlala, Blaze and tenor Andrew Evans for the opening chorus. The solo interjections had a slightly startled quality, but overall the result was a grand opening for the concert.

Bowman's account of Music for a While was an altogether smaller scale affair, with just continuo accompaniment. Now over 70 his voice is still in a remarkable state of preservation, a testament to a fine technique. He can still spin a line beautifully, fining the voice right down. Perhaps the performance was a trifle  mannered, but he held the audience in the palm of his hand. Quite magical.

The first half concluded with Come ye sons of art away, Purcell's Ode for Queen Mary's birthday in 1694. This has a text by Nahum Tate (librettist of Dido and Aeneas). After a brilliant opening chorus, with Robin Blaze singing the solo, Blaze was joined by Bowman for Sound the Trumpet. This is one of Purcell's most famous duets and the two counter-tenors (some 30 years apart in age) seemed to have the most enjoyable time, the dynamic between the two contributing to an exciting performance of the duet.

Blaze reappeared, in quieter mode, for Strike the viol, then Madlala joined the chorus for The day that such a blessing gave. Madlala has such a large, dark bass-baritone voice that it seems surprising that he could sing this repertoire. But sing it he does, very stylishly with a beautiful attention to detail in the passagework and an upwards extension which spoke volumes for his versatility.

Susan Bickley gave a poised and finely shaped account of Bid the virtues, bid the graces. Madlala sang These are the sacred charms that shield, before being joined by Christenson and the chorus for the final joyful See Nature, rejoicing.

The chorus acquitted themselves creditably, though there were one or two places where the passagework of the inner parts was a bit smudged. More problematic was the issue of balance. With just 18 instrumentalists, the ensemble was perfect for accompanying the soloists but with a choir of some 45 singers, the choruses tended to come out a little choir heavy, perhaps not helped by St. Johns resonant acoustic.

Though the performance of Dido and Aeneas was a concert one, in a slightly unpromising Victorian church with difficult sight-lines, there was no sense of disengagement from the soloists. Bickley was every inch Dido, regal and strong minded, anxious in act 2 and reluctant to commit, then devastatingly withering in act 3 before a final, noble collapse. It goes without saying that her singing was of a very high order, with Dido's line spun out beautifully; Bickley's voice giving no hint that her repertoire extends to bigger dramatic Wagnerian roles (she makes her debut as Ortrud with WNO next year). But all this was used at the service of the drama, hers was a very involving performance which concluded with a hauntingly beautiful account of the Lament.

Purcell and Tate give us very little opportunity with witness Dido and Aeneas being in love, and the role of Aeneas is barely sketched in. Madlala used his beautiful voice to maximum effect, his caressing of the music in his solo at the end of act 2 was especially notable and gave us a real sense of Aeneas's strong feelings. English is not Madlala's native language and there were moments when I felt that he neglected the text and concentrated on the music; but Purcell is a very text based composer and any performance needs to be centred on the words. That said, it was stirring to hear such a dark toned voice sing this role so sympathetically.

Malin Christenson was an intense and vivid Belinda, making sure that each of her utterances told to maximum dramatic effect, combined with a fine feel for Purcell's line and Tate's text. The second woman was sung by Harriet Johnson from the choir, giving a nice account of her act 2 solo.

This was a refreshingly straightforward and direct performance, with no attempts at hammy characterisation so neither the witches nor the sailor use funny voices or strong regional accents. Blaze's account of the Sorceress was one of the most finely sung that I have heard in a long time. He found a vein of intense malice in the music without distorting text or vocal line, projecting so vividly that you needed neither costumes nor staging. He was well supported by Helen Semple and Sophie Miller from the choir as the first and second witches. Blaze also sang the solo for the spirit in act 2. Tom Emlyn Williams, singing from the back of the church, gave us a rousing but not too overstated Sailor's song in act 3.

Andrew Edwards used his own edition, with various missing pieces of music reconstructed or substituted from Purcell's other works. He seemed rather too fond of the bass drum and I found that it was a little too intrusive at times. His setting of Then since our Charmes have sped, (which comes at the end of act 2) was neatly in the style of Purcell. But coming after Madlala's profoundly moving solo, you'd wished that Edwards had simply followed Madlala with silence.

The choir were enthusiastic witches and sympathetic courtiers. I found the choir sound a little to present at some moments, making the work more directly choral, but this is a comment on my preferences rather than a criticism. Their contribution to the closing scene was notable.

Edwards conducted with elan and sympathy, pacing the music nicely and sensitive to the ebb and flow of Purcell's setting. Dido and Aeneas is a work which can have the stuffing knocked out of it in unsympathetic hands. Here, eliciting dramatic performances from his soloists and allowing them plenty of space, Edwards ensured that we had a richly vivid and intensely moving account of one of England's greatest operas. Perhaps next year they could give us Venus and Adonis by Purcell's teacher, Blow?

The festival continues until 25 November, with a wide variety of events including celebrity vocal and piano recitals, a staged performance of Petrushka and the premiere of a newly commissioned work. Further details from the festival website.

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