Friday 10 March 2023

Sending everyone away with a smile: Academy of Ancient Music in Purcell and Locke

Matthew Locke
Matthew Locke
Locke, Humfrey, Banister, Reggio: The Tempest, Purcell: Hail! Bright Cecilia; Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed 9 March 2023

An imaginative programme paired one of Purcell's large-scale masterworks with a theatrical sequence from a joint-effort Shakespeare adaptation, all lifted by engaging, rhythmically alert and colourful performances

Last night (9 March 2023) at Milton Court Concert Hall, Laurence Cummings and the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) gave us a feast of last 17th-century English music. The focus of the programme was Purcell's largest and grandest ode, Hail! Bright Cecilia, which was imaginatively paired with a sequence of the surviving music from the 1674 production of Shakespeare's The Tempest with music by Matthew Locke, Pelham Humfrey, John Banister and Pietro Reggio. The soloists, eight in all, were all members of the choir.

In France and Italy, in their various ways, the court ceremonial musical entertainments (masque, ballet du court and such) developed into large-scale, fully sung opera. The English, perhaps with an innate love-hate relationship with Continental influences, did something different. There were fully sung theatrical pieces during the mid-17th century, such as The Siege of Rhodes (1656) but these seem to have been as much about getting around Puritan laws against spoken drama as an innate desire for full-sung opera. With the Restoration, the preferred musical entertainment was the spectacular, an evening combining spoken word, instrumental music, song, and dance with spectacular stagings, variously called dramatick opera or semi-opera. But there was a certain flexibility, so plays with a bit of incidental music might shade into full dramatick opera spectaculars. One of these was Thomas Shadwell's 1674 production of The Tempest.

This used a version of the text based on one rewritten by John Dryden in 1667, there was singing and dancing, and plenty of extra characters (an extra daughter for Prospero, love interest for her, a girl-friend for Ariel and a sister for Caliban). It was a great success. The music, as was common at this period, was the product of a number of hands and, as was also common, the theatrical scores do not survive. But in 1675, Matthew Locke published his contribution, a suite of dances and act tunes, whilst some songs by the other composers do survive. The AAM gave us a substantial sequence that interspersed Locke's dances with songs by John Banister (one-time master of the King's violin band), Pelham Humfrey (master of the Children of the Chapel Royal and French-trained), and two Italian emigres, Giovanni Draghi and Pietro Reggio.

The initial sequence of Locke's instrumental music - Introduction, Galliard, Gavot - was so imaginative and rich in character that you rather regretted that fashion or whatever prevented us from getting a whole piece from Locke. Reggio's Arise, ye subterranean winds, admirably sung by Ben Davies, was closer to arioso than aria and frankly effective rather than memorable. After the striking curtain tune where Locke used a remarkable (for the period) series of dynamic markings, Banister's Full fathom five was more song-like and delightfully delivered by Eloise Irving. Further dances included a wonderfully robust Rustick Air and a rhythmically imaginative Corant, then we had the single most developed item. This was an inserted scene, The Masque of Neptune by Pelham Humfrey featuring Amphitrite (Martha McLorinan), Neptune (Ben McKee), Oceanus (Benjamin Durrant), Aeolus (Christopher Bowen) and Tehtys (Jeni Harper). Worry not about quite what it had to do with the plot (what plot?) and simply enjoy the music. The opening lyric arioso for McLorinan and McKee developed into a lively triple-time duet, but the whole had a very flexible feel to it full of short numbers building into something more. Durrant had a fine dramatic arioso, and the scene ended with an imaginative sequence of song, chorus and dance. As drama, it was, perhaps, a bit weak, but as musical entertainment it was delightful. The whole sequence ended with further dances from Locke and a charming account of Humfrey's Where the Bee sucks sung from the balcony by Jenni Harper.

Theatre music of this period is engaging and important, but patchy survival and the fact that it consists of a series of short items makes it tricky to bring off in the concert hall. Here Laurence Cummings provided short linking narrations which proved a very effective way of binding this together and creating an imaginative and engaging sequence. Locke's music is always well worth listening to, and performances here were wonderfully rhythmically alert, full of touches of colour and changes of timbre. More, please.

Purcell composed his first ode for St Cecilia's Day in 1683 for a newly established celebration of the day. These became annual performances and later composers such as Draghi (1687) and John Blow (1691) were able to develop both the form and the size of the forces used. So when Purcell wrote his second ode for the 1692 performance, the result, Ode for St Cecilia's Day would be his largest, grandest ode - six-part chorus, six solo parts and an orchestra including trumpets, drums, recorders and oboes. The words, by clergyman poet Nicholas Brady, are entirely adequate and certainly not as risible as the texts for some of the court odes that Purcell had to write.

The opening symphony, with its trumpets and drums, was indeed very grand, yet imaginative too and Cummings and his players gave us music that was alert to the lively rhythms and full of changes of instrumental timbre. Bass Ben Davies rather serious 'Hail! Bright Cecilia' led to his duet countertenor Mark Chambers where the voices were almost part of the instrumental texture and what we really noticed were the lovely recorders. Edward Ross combined a fine lyric tenor with great control of the elaborate ornaments in 'Tis Nature's Voice'. The following chorus was strong, giving the admirable 12-strong ensemble their chance to show off. Perky oboes complimented soprano Eloise Irving's short solo whilst the trio of Mark Chambers, Benjamin Durrant (tenor) and Ben McKee (bass) were perhaps a bit polite in their rapture in 'With that sublime Celestial Lay' but then we had some fabulous oboe playing at the opening of 'Wondrous Machine'. Here, I wanted Ben Davies to show off a bit more, but that is being picky because he showed that he had all the notes and more for this wide-ranging solo, writtten for one of Purcell's star basses. Durrant was intriguingly confidential in 'The airy Violin', whilst he and tenor Edward Ross intertwined finely with the recorders in their duet. Tenor Christopher Bowen and the trumpets brought fine martial swagger to 'The Fife and all the Harmony of War', whilst Davies and McKee were wonderfully resonant in their duet, leading to the grand and lively final chorus.

This was a performance that mixed grandeur and intimacy, always rhythmically alert and with a fine array of soloists standing out from the choir, as would have been the case. This was a substantial yet engaging evening that made these tricky late-17th-century pieces work in a modern context, and sent everyone away with a smile on their faces.

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