Thursday 15 October 2015

Purcell theatre music and Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell
Henry Purcell Theatre music, and Dido and Aeneas; Rowan Hellier, Jonathan McGovern, Patricia Bardon, Julia Doyle, Stuart Jackson, Michael Chance, Trevor Pinnock; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 13 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Theatre music and Dido and Aeneas from Trevor Pinnock and friends

As part of the Wigmore Hall's Henry Purcell: A Retrospective, Trevor Pinnock and Friends gave us a selection of Purcell's theatre music as well as his greatest stage work, Dido and Aeneas. The theatre music was a selection of items, both known and unknown, from The Double Dealer, The Marrriage-Hater Match'd, The Comical History of Don Quixote, The Gordion Knot Unty'd, A Fool's Preferment and The Libertine. Singers included Rowan Hellier, Jonathan McGovern, Patricia Bardon, Julia Doyle, Stuart Jackson and Michael Chance, with the Tenebrae Consort, whilst the instrumental ensemble consisted of Matthew Truscott and Huw Daniel, violins, Alfonso Leal, viola, Jonathan Byers, cello, Pippa Macmillan, violone, Thomas Dunford, theorbo, directed from the harpsichord by Trevor Pinnock.

For the first half, we had a selection of Purcell's theatre music, both vocal and instrumental, arranged into suitable groups.  In this half the singers Julia Doyle, Stuart Jackson and Jonathan McGovern with contributions from the Tenebrae Consort. We started with a crisp and characterful account of the overture to The Double Dealer with the ensemble showing that just one instrument per part did not mean compromising on vividness or character. Stuart Jackson and Jonathan McGovern sang the duet as soon as the chaos was made into form from The Marriage-hater Match'd which was in fact far wittier than you might think. Jackson has a lovely high tenor voice with just the right degree of edge to it for Purcell, and he was finely partnered by McGovern with round, centred baritone. A hornpipe from The Double Dealer with a brilliant snap to the rhythm followed, and then Julia Doyle brought character and wit to Man is for the woman made from The Mock Marriage with surprise contributions from Jackson, McGovern and the Tenebrae consort.

Trevor Pinnock explained that they had had tremendous fun preparing the programme, and this sense of enthusiasm and joy came through in the performances. Pinnock then gave us an elegantly expressive harpsichord solo, and arrangement of Lully's Scocca pur from the collection Musick's Handmaid which is almost certainly by Purcell. Julia Doyle, accompanied just by harpsichord, lute and cello, sang the mad song From rosy bow'rs from The Comical History of Don Quixote. Though written in the 1690's this song was still in use 100 years later when Haydn accompanied a singer performing it at a benefit in London! Doyle brought a lovely clarity to the various bewitching changes of emotion and metre, including some superb passagework (for instance when tempests were blowing) and a bravura finish.

It wasn't just the women who went mad, and both Jackson and McGovern had similar songs as well. First a group of movements from Amphiytron, a perky Scotch tune full of rhythmic snap, an elegant Minuet and a vivid Hornpipe full of attack. Then McGovern sang Let the dreadful engines of eternal will from The Comical History of Don Quixote again with just harpsichord, lute and cello accompaniment. It was dramatic mixture of free recitative and arioso, full of swiftly changing emotions. McGovern was engagingly vivid, with nice freedom to his upper voice.

The Chaconne from The Gordion Knot Unty'd was a short but striking movement which, Pinnock informed us, managed to visit 10 keys. Stuart Jackson sang I sigh'd, and I pin'd and Tis death alone from A Fool's Preferment the first vivid and full of character, and the second quiet and intense with lovely lyric beauty in Jackson's voice. After the elegantly stylish Sarabande in G minor played by Thomas Dunford, Jackson then sang I'll mount to yon blue Coelum and I'll sail upon the Dog-star from A Fool's Preferment, the first short and fun, the second vivid and full of character.

Finally, all joined in a lively account of Nymphs and shepherds from The Libertine, a rather more complex piece than the one we learned at school!

For the second half of the concert we had just one work, Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas performed by the instrumental ensemble, Tenebrae Consort with Rowan Hillier as Dido, Jonathan McGovern as Aeneas, Patricia Bardon as the sorceress, Julia Doyle as Belinda (and first Woman), Katie Trethewey as second Woman, Stuart Jackson as the Sailor, Martha McLornan and Amy Wood as Witches, Michael Chance as the Spirit. It was sung from memory and semi-staged so that we got some sense of the drama though there were moments, such as the sailors in Act Three, when things got a little too lively and a greater sense of controlling dramatic presence might have helped.

Rowan Hillier was a beautifully poised and dignified Dido. She sang with a lovely even, strong mezzo-soprano voice which gave the music a sculpted quality, yet was touching too. We were able to appreciate both the beauty of Purcell's music and the emotions behind it. Whilst When I am laid in earth was rightly a climax, the scene before with Jonathan McGovern's Aeneas was an equal high point of the drama. McGovern made an equally strong Aeneas, singing with firm, focussed tone and interacting with Hillier very effectively. Aeneas does not get long to convey his emotions, but McGovern packed it all in.

Patricia Bardon, standing in at the last moment, made a vivid Sorceress. She used no funny voices, nor hammy dramatics, but conveyed everything through her use of her voice and her manner. This was a strong minded and ultimately rather scary Sorceress. Julia Doyle made a clear voice and touching Belinda, contrasting nicely with Hillier's voice.

The smaller roles were effectively taken too. Michael Chance a highly effective Spirit, singing from the balcony, with Stuart Jackson as a lively Sailor. Katie Trethewey and Julia Doyle made a nicely balanced pair of Women, whilst Martha McLornan and Amy Wood were vivid witches.

The edition Pinnock used included some improvised 'Horrid Musick' for the exit of the Witches and an extra dance interpolated into Act Two, but most importantly was the way that he inspired his fellow performers to give us such a vividly characterised and stylish performance. The instrumental playing was as characterful as the singing, so that the whole was a wonderfully involving and balanced.
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