Wednesday 18 March 2015

Come all ye songsters - Carolyn Sampson in Purcell at the Wigmore Hall

Carolyn Sampson
Carolyn Sampson
Purcell, Draghi, Corbetta, Simpson; Carloyn Sampson, Elizabeth Kenny, Jonathan Manson, Laurence Cummings; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 17 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Bewitching evening of Purcell exploring his music for aristocratic patrons

The Wigmore Hall's Henry Purcell: A Retrospective continues exploring the full range of the composer's work. On Tuesday 17 March 2015 soprano Carolyn Sampson joined Elizabeth Kenny on lute, Jonathan Manson bass viol and Laurence Cummings on harpsichord for a programme of Purcell's songs. But this was no random selection of choice gems from Purcell's repertoire (though there are indeed many gems), instead the musicians explored two very particular manuscripts, the Gresham Manuscript and 'Princess Ans Lutebook'. Both of these are ultimately associated with Princess Anne, younger sister of Queen Mary (of William and Mary) who maintained her own establishment and seems to have been highly musical. Thus the concert, which included a mixture of Purcell's theatre songs as well as music from the odes and other pieces, gave us a taste of the sort of music making that might have gone on in Princess Anne's chambers.

The Gresham Manuscript (so called because it was acquired by Gresham College in the 19th century), is in Purcell's own hand and seems to have been assembled for Purcell's pupil Lady Arabella Howard. Before her marriage she was a lady in waiting to Princess Anne and both women were musical. Anne played the harpsichord and guitar (her teachers included Francisco Corbetta and Giovanni Battista Draghi), and Arabella sang and played the harpsichord. And the manuscript seems to have been compiled by Purcell for their use, with the songs being copied in shortly after being composed. 'Princess Ans Lutebook' is in fact a book of guitar tablatures and is similar in nature, in that it is a compilation (of Purcell and others) of music to be played on guitar. Also included in the concert was Purcell's C major harpsichord suite which was originally written as part of his teaching material for aristocratic patrons.

Not all the songs were from the Gresham Manuscript, but there were enough to give us a lovely taste, a real sense of domestic music making. A number of the songs existing in versions in the manuscript which occur nowhere else, and sometimes transposed from other voices to be suitable for soprano. Arranged into themed groups, divided by instrumental solos, the programme provided a lovely selection of Purcell's works but also had the sense of illuminating a corner of aristocratic patronage from the 1690's.

Accompanied by harpsichord, bass viol and guitar Carolyn Sampson started with three songs from The Fairy Queen (written in 1692), Come all ye songsters, Sing while we trip it and Ye gentle spirits of the air. Effortless and vibrant, her performances had the virtue of being both stylish and engaging.  She sang with a pure bright sense of line and brought a nice freedom to the melismatic passages which peppered the music.

Laurence Cummings played Purcell's C major harpsichord suite which is a four movement work ending in a rather interestingly syncopated sarabande, to which Cummings had added a jig. It was a charming and work, not uncomplicated despite Purcell writing it as teaching material and full of quirky rhythms.

The next three songs were from more varied sources, The cares of lovers from Timon of Athens (1695), Fly swift ye hours (1691) and Not all my torments (1693). The first was sung with just voice and theorbo, and was very much free arioso, with lots of melisma and the words of the song 'how ravishing the bliss' could not have been more apposite, with a long melismatic passage on pleasure getting very ecstatic. Fly swift ye hours, accompanied by harpsichord and viol, had lots of swift running passages in both viol and voice illustrating the words. Purcell, clearly showing off, sets each pair of lines in the poem in a different style. Not all my torments, accompanied by harpsichord, viol and theorbo, was again melismatic free arioso with lots of chromatic torments, and ending in a dying fall.

Next came Jonathan Manson and Elizabeth Kenny in An Italian Ground by Giovanni Battista Draghi (c1640-1708) who taught Princess Anne the harpsichord. It proved an elegant melancholy tune on viol over a ground bass, with the sense of the melody getting more elaborated as the ground turned.

Before and after the interval came a pair of mad songs from Don Quixote (1694-95) with words by Thomas D'Urfey. The first, From rosy bow'rs (accompanied by viol and theorbo) was in fact sung by someone who is pretending to be mad, whilst the second Let the dreadful Engines of Eternal Will (accompanied by harpsichord, viol and theorbo) was a real mad song. The genre of the mad song was a popular theatrical one and, with its sequence of recitative, arioso and songs, it gave Purcell a flexible dramatic structure (a scena in fact) to work with. Both songs were sung by Sampson with a lovely freedom and charm, with a consummate sense that the emotions turned on a pin. These were finely sung, but vividly theatrical performances.

Next came a selection of arrangements for guitar, played by Elizabeth Kenny, from Princess Anne's guitar book. First two Purcell arrangements, Mystery and If love's a sweet passion from The Fairy Queen and then an anonymous Minuet. Finally Kenny played a Passacaillei by Princess Anne's guitar tutor Francesco Corbetta (c1615-1681) from a publication he dedicated to Charles II.

The next three songs all dealt, in various ways, with failed love. I see she flies me, which comes from a revival of Dryden's tragedy Aureng-Zebe in 1693, What a sad fate is mine and Pious Celinda goes to prayers (setting words by William Congreve). As might be expected, I see she flies me (accompanied by harpsichord, viol and theorbo) was fast and vivid, with lots of flying passages in the music and then some stunning lyric beauty from Sampson in the last two lines. What a sad fate is mine was accompanied just by theorbo and was  quiet intense piece, given a touching delivery. The final song in the group, accompanied by harpsichord and viol, was more structured but still with a nice freedom and a lovely sense of wit at the end.

The last instrumental contribution was from bass viol player Jonathan Manson who, with harpsichord and theorbo accompaniment, played Division in D from The Division Viol (1665) by Christopher Simpson (1602/6-1669). A work which allowed Manson to demonstrate his virtuoso skill on the instruments as the divisions (semi-quaver passages generally) multiplied.

And we had a lovely trio of songs to finish Tis Nature's Voice from Hail Bright Cecilia (1692), Lucinda is bewitching fair from Abdelazar, or The Moor's Revenge by Aphra Behn (1695), and Hark! The echoing air from The Fairy Queen, all making a delightfully intimate end to the concert.

Except, of course, it was no the end. With music making of such a high order the audience response was enthusiastic and we were treated to I attempt from love's sickness and Fairest Isle as encores, making sure we went home humming indeed.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 which means that you can listen at home for another 30 days from the BBC iPlayer.
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