Friday, 26 August 2016

A glimpse of 17th century aristocratic music making - Come all ye songsters

Come all ye songsters - Carolyn Sampson - Wigmore Hall Live
Come all ye songsters - Purcell, Draghi, Corbetta, Simpson; Carolyn Sampson, Elizabeth Kenny, Jonathan Manson, Laurence Cummings; Wigmore Hall Live
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 16 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Music from the Gresham Manuscript and Princess Ans Lutebook allow us a glimpse of aristocratic music making in the 1690s, performed with delight and charm in this live recital

This delightful programme was originally presented on 17 March 2015 at the Wigmore Hall, and is now released on the Wigmore Hall Live label. Soprano Carolyn Sampson joins Elizabeth Kenny on lute, Jonathan Manson bass viol and Laurence Cummings on harpsichord for a programme of Purcell's songs. This is no random selection of choice gems, instead the musicians explore 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. So the disc, which includes a mixture of Purcell's theatre songs as well as music from the odes and other pieces, gives us a taste of the sort of music making that might have gone on in Princess Anne's chambers, including as well Purcell's C major Harpsichord Suite, originally written as teaching material for aristocratic patrons.

The Gresham Manuscript (named after Gresham College, the manuscript's 19th century owner) 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. Whilst '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.


Not all the songs in the recital are 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 exist in versions in the manuscript which occur nowhere else, and sometimes transposed from other voices to be suitable for soprano. At first this can seem strange, when Sampson launches into a song familiar for another voice, but it makes sense in the context. Arranged into themed groups, divided by instrumental solos, the programme provides a lovely selection of Purcell's works but also has the sense of illuminating a corner of aristocratic patronage from the 1690's. This is captured admirably by the disc where the immediacy and intimacy of the performances combines with the appealing style of the performances, notably Carolyn Sampson's combination of superb technique and winning charm.

Accompanied by harpsichord, bass viol and guitar Carolyn Sampson starts 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', plus the instrumental 'A dance of fairies'. Effortless and vibrant, Sampson's performances are stylish and engaging, as she sings with pure bright sense of line and a nice freedom in the melismatic passages which pepper the music.

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

The next three songs are from a variety of sources, 'The cares of lovers' from Timon of Athens (1695), 'Fly swift ye hours' (1691) and 'Not all my torments# (1693). The first, sung with just voice and theorbo, is free arioso, with lots of melisma and with a long melismatic passage on the word pleasure getting very ecstatic. 'Fly swift ye hours', accompanied by harpsichord and viol, has 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.

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

A pair of mad songs come from Don Quixote (1694-95) with words by Thomas D'Urfey. 'From rosy bow'rs' is sung by someone who is pretending to be mad, whilst the second 'Let the dreadful Engines of Eternal Will' is 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 are sung by Sampson with a lovely freedom and charm, with a consummate sense that the emotions turned on a pin.

Next comes 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 a Passacaille by Princess Anne's guitar tutor Francesco Corbetta (c1615-1681) from La Guitarre Royalle (1671), a publication he dedicated to Charles II.

The next three songs all deal, in various ways, with failed love; 'I see she flies me', 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' is fast and vivid, with lots of flying passages in the music. 'What a sad fate is mine' is quiet intense piece, and rather touching. The final song in the groupis more structured but still with a nice freedom and a lovely sense of wit at the end.

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

A trio Purcell songs completes the main part of the programme; '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 not the end and there are two encores, giving us a chance to hear two of Purcell's best known pieces in lovely performances, 'I attempt from love's sickness' (from The Indian Queen) and 'Fairest Isle' (from King Arthur).

There is an excellent article in the CD booklet by Andrew Pinnock which introduces both the music and the background to the manuscript sources.

Audience noise is kept to a minimum, and the applause is retained only after the end of each group. The disc has successfully translated a lovely recital into a winning disc. Perhaps, occasionally, you could imagine a performer giving the songs with a greater sense of intensity, but Carolyn Sampson sings with ease and charm throughout, it is difficult to imagine this music being sung with a greater feel for the music combined with technical ease and lovely freedom. In a sense, her performances are at one with the origins of the music, as this intelligent recital allows us a window onto the music making of Princess Anne and her circle in the 1690's.

Henry Purcell (c.1659-1695) - Come all ye songsters from The Fairy Queen Z629
Henry Purcell - Sing while we trip it from The Fairy Queen Z629
Henry Purcell - A dance of fairies from The Fairy Queen Z629
Henry Purcell - Ye gentle spirits of the air from The Fairy Queen Z629
Henry Purcell - Harpsichord Suite No. 5 in C major (with Jig) Z666
Henry Purcell - The cares of lovers from Timon of Athens Z632
Henry Purcell - Fly swift, ye hours Z369
Henry Purcell - Not all my torments can your pity move Z400
Giovanni Draghi (c.1640-1708) - An Italian Ground
Henry Purcell - From rosy bow’rs from Don Quixote Z578
Henry Purcell - Let the dreadful Engines of Eternal Will from Don Quixote Z578
Henry Purcell - Mystery from The Fairy Queen Z629
Henry Purcell - If love's a sweet passion from The Fairy Queen Z629
Anon - Minuet
Francesco Corbetta (c.1615-1681) - Passacaille from La Guitarre Royalle
Henry Purcell - I see she flies me from Aureng-Zebe Z573
Henry Purcell - What a sad fate is mine Z428A
Henry Purcell - Pious Celinda goes to prayers Z410
Christopher Simpson (c.1602-1669) - Divisions on a Ground
Henry Purcell - ’Tis Nature’s Voice from Hail, bright Cecilia Z328
Henry Purcell - Lucinda is bewitching fair from Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge Z570
Henry Purcell - Hark! The echoing air from The Fairy Queen Z629
Henry Purcell - I attempt from love’s sickness to fly from The Indian Queen Z630
Henry Purcell - Fairest isle from King Arthur Z628/38
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Elizabeth Kenny (lute)
Jonathan Manson (bass viol)
Laurence Cummings (harpsichord)
Recorded live, 17 March 2015 at the Wigmore Hall
WIGMORE HALL LIVE WHLIVE0083 1CD [78.00]
Available from Amazon.co.uk.
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