Friday 19 September 2014

The Sixteen launches Purcell A Retrospective at the Wigmore Hall

The Sixteen at the Wigmore Hall, photo - Wigmore Hall
The Sixteen at the Wigmore Hall, photo - Wigmore Hall
Henry Purcell The Indian Queen, Daniel Purcell The Masque of Hymen; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 17 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Stylish accounts of some of Purcell's lesser known theatre and court music

Henry Purcell wrote a considerable amount of music which does not find its way regularly onto the concert platform. Last night (17 September 2014) at the Wigmore Hall, Harry Christophers and the Sixteen gave us the opportunity to hear a fascinating selection of Purcell's music in a concert to launch the Wigmore Hall's two year series, Purcell: A Retrospective devised by John Gilhooly, which will be celebrating all aspects of the composer's career. The centrepiece of Wednesday's concert was Purcell's music for The Indian Queen, a semi-opera premiered during the last year of his life. This was joined by music by Daniel Purcell, The Mask of Hymen which was written for The Indian Queen after Purcell's death. To round things out we had one of the Welcome Odes written for King Charles II, Swifter. Isis, Swifter Flow, plus O dive custos Auriacae domus written after the death of Purcell's great patron Queen Mary, and one of the composer's less ribald catches.

One of the problems with Purcell's music is that much of it is not written for symphonic forces, he requires a flexible instrumental ensemble and group of singers. The Sixteen fielded a vocal ensemble of eight singers, two sopranos, three tenors and three basses, with the alto line being sung presumably as a high tenor part. All of the singers took solos within the evening, as well as singing in the ensembles, requiring a degree of versatility and bravura. They were accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble of 16 players with oboes doubling recorders and continuo provided from organ, harpsichord, cello, harp and theorbo.

We started with the catch God save our sov'reign Charles. An unaccompanied piece, this was sung by all the singers with the orchestra joining in too. It made a jolly start to the evening and demonstrated that Purcell's talent was not just in making serious music.

Swifter, Isis, Swifter Flow was one of the Welcome Odes which the court composers wrote to welcome the monarch back from a journey. It was a way of providing conspicuous musical consumption in an age of relative austerity when the Restored Monarchy just didn't have the money to indulge in court masques or opera. Generally the odes have completely forgettable texts, which applied to this anonymous one. But Purcell responded with an attractive and fluid sequence of choruses, arias and recitatives with each verse given a different combination for forces. The graceful and dance-inspired opening chorus, was followed by a lovely soft-grained baritone solo with two recorders, a vibrant and lively tenor solo, a trio for three men which had a lovely rhythmic bound, a fluid recitative for bass, two solo sopranos with a busy running bass continuo and finally a lively final chorus. All the solos were admirably taken and the whole flowed fluidly with just the right amount of bounce in the rhythms.

O dive custos sets a Latin text an was from a group of elegies for Queen Mary published by Purcell and Blow. It was performed by two solo sopranos and continue, with the two voices intertwining in a fluid and fluent way. Wonderfully expressive, and then ending rather movingly on a dying fall.

The semi-opera The Indian Queen was based on a play by Robert Howard and John Dryden. It concerns the fighting between Peru and Mexico (the Indian of the title in fact refers to the inhabitants of Peru!). The finale of the original semi-opera, produced in 1695 was rather downbeat, so at the 1696 revival a masque was added, written by Henry Purcell's brother/cousin Daniel Purcell. It is a typically Henry Purcell-ian sequence of choruses and solos. Hymen appears (bass solo in an elaborate recitative), to be followed by a soprano follower in a perky solo. After a rather dancing chorus of praise, there is was vivid soprano and bass duet for a disgruntled married couple. Hymen reappears to perk them up and the couple's second characterful duet sees them finally agreeing. There is then a sequence for Cupid (a lovely soprano arioso like reciatative with two recorders), then a tenor solo with trumpet. The trumpet reappears for the trumpet tune before the grand chorus. It is attractively capable music in the Henry Purcell style, perhaps it lacks that last inch of inspiration but it is certainly very personable.

Henry Prucell's music for  The Indian Queen is rather more diverse and does not fall into musical sections the way that his music for other semi-operas did, it seems far closer to incidental music. The First Music and Second Music (written for when the audience was arriving) was crisp with stylish rhythmic vitality and they were followed by another catch, To all lovers of music sung by the three tenors. After a grand overture with a lively trumpet tune we had a lovely duet for the Indian Boy (tenor) and Indian Girl (soprano), flexible in its structure and attractively varied in musical style. From act two, a symphony led to a scene with Fame (tenor solo), Envy and followers (tenors) which called from Purcell some of his characteristically characterful music.

Act three saw Ismeron (bass) conjuring up the God of Dreams (soprano). The bass had a wonderful arioso like recitative followed by a perky aria. After a stately symphony the soprano had a shapely solo with oboe obliggato. Another trumpet tune, led to a scene with aerial spirits and finally the work's most famous number, the soprano solo I attempt from love's sickness to fly in vain which was beautifully sung. Further instrumental numbers led to the final stately chorus with bass solo, concluding with an eerie and quietly expressive chorus. (No wonder they wanted a toe-tapping finale for the 1696 revival).

This was an entrancing concert with the singers and instrumental ensemble on fine form. All provided engaging solo moments, whilst contributing to the ensembles. Harry Christophers drew crisp, lively singing and playing from everyone, with a very nice feel for the rhythmic bounce in the music without been too over incisive. I do hope that we get to hear more of the Sixteen in this repertoire and it made an excellent start to the Wigmore Hall's Purcell retrospective.

English National Opera will be performing Peter Sellers version of Purcell's The Indian Queen in February and March 2014. Sellars text is based on The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by Nicaraguan author Rosario Aguilar and he adds some of Purcell's sacred music to the mix too.

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