Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
The Fairy Queen, Z629 (shortened version for concert performance devised by Peter Pears, edited and realized by Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst) [97:07]
The Tempest, Z631 (excerpts): Arise, ye subterranean winds; Aeolus, you must appear; Your awful voice I hear; Halcyon days; See, see the heavens smile [22:19]
Sonata for trumpet and strings, Z850 (ed. Dart & Tilmouth) [4:33]
The Virtuous Wife, Z611 [4:09]: March, Minuet 1, Minuet 2
Dioclesian, Z627: What shall I do? [4:35]
Ciacona in G minor, Z730 (ed. Dart) [5:04]
Jennifer Vyvyan, Mary Wells, Norma Burrowes (sopranos), Alfreda Hodgson (mezzo), James Bowman, Charles Brett (countertenors), Peter Pears, Ian Partridge, William Herbert (tenors), John Shirley-Quirk, Owen Brannigan, Hervey Alan (basses)
Dennis Egan (trumpet)
Ambrosian Opera Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten (Queen)
Philomusica of London/Anthony Lewis (others)
rec. Snape Maltings, 1970 (Queen); London, 1958 (others)
ELOQUENCE 482 5063 [79:12 + 58:09]
The link between Britten’s version of The Fairy Queen and a disc originally called ‘Music of Purcell’ directed by Anthony Lewis is soprano Jennifer Vyvyan; this is the seventh release of recordings from Eloquence featuring her. One is of the first complete recording of The Fairy Queen with the Boyd Neel Orchestra/Anthony Lewis (482 7449), made in mono in 1957, and I shall make comparison of Vyvyan singing the same roles in both recordings.
Today in Aldeburgh the three collaborators in Britten’s The Fairy Queen remain close. Peter Pears is to the right of Britten, Imogen Holst directly behind Pears. Holst’s headstone is plainer and more weathered but, unlike the others, has an inscription: ‘The heavenly spheres make music for us. All things join in the dance’ - and this seems to me the most dancing and successful of Britten’s realizations of Purcell. This Eloquence reissue is described as, ‘Edited by Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst and Peter Pears’ but in this review’s heading I give the more specific title from Faber’s vocal score. Pears re-ordered the music to create four tableaux. I shall make italicized reference to Britten’s editorial markings as these clarify his style of performance. Intended to be helpful, today they seem over prescriptive, for instance in comparison with the 2009 new Purcell Society edition.
The first tableau, ‘Oberon’s Birthday’ is the Masque of the Four Seasons, the first music heard in Act 4 of the semi-opera. That masque, playing for 29:53, is its longest continuous sequence of music and can therefore readily be compared with the latest account from a recording of the complete music, made in 2016 by Les Nouveaux Caractères/Sebastian d’Herin (Glossa GCD 922702). Its opening Sinfonia is the work’s grandest instrumental item: to “welcome up the rising Sun” its spoken cue. From Britten it’s a bright, sunny start with trumpets and strings alternating and resplendent. Yet its third section, marked Largo, has an element of languor with hints of coyness, even seduction as the strings sigh expansively, brushed aside by a crisp Allegro dominated by trumpets and drums before a majestic, but not too heavy, closing Adagio. Where Britten insists that the Sinfonia opening be majestic, d’Herin’s emphasis is on joviality, anticipating the chorus’ “’Tis that happy day”. Of course, d’Herin has the advantage of period instruments, the sheen of whose violins more neatly matches the brightness of the trumpets. His Largo section has more languor and sleekness than Britten’s, yet I feel its ornamentation, though not excessive, is a little self-conscious. However, the Allegro of his trumpets and drums outclasses Britten in élan.
The first voice heard from Britten, ‘Now the night is chas’d away’, is that of Jennifer Vyvyan: a pleasure in its pearly tone, eagerness and tripping through the roulades. Equally enjoyable is the lively harpsichord realization by Philip Ledger. But Vyvyan’s voice is brighter in the Lewis 1957 recording, more enthusiastic, with a peppier accompaniment, timing at 2:20 in comparison with Britten’s 2:42. In fact, Lewis’ comparative timing is really 2:14 as, working with the original Purcell Society edition of 1903, he repeats the first choral statement. Virginie Pochon, d’Herin’s soloist, is pleasingly florid, as good as the 1957 Vyvyan and more skipping with d’Herin’s strictly comparative timing 1:48.
Next, two countertenors imitate one another, in Britten’s recording James Bowman and Charles Brett, with equal gusto, followed by the Entry of Phoebus, the Sun, in a blaze of trumpets and drums. Honours are pretty even here between Britten and d’Heron and you may, or may not like the latter’s additional drum embellishments. Now comes a prequel of the Four Seasons’ arias where for Britten Peter Pears as Phoebus sings how ‘When a cruel long Winter’ freezes everything, his beams revivify. I feel Britten overdoes the contrast in this transformation piece with an opening slowly moving before a lively second part, ‘I dart forth my beams’. The opening is too effortful in the orchestral introduction and then vocal roulades, though the second part is cheerful. The more flowing orchestral introduction by d’Herin, taking 0:44 against Britten’s 1:03, is better in that it suggests a gradual, though not easy, reawakening. But d’Herin’s Phoebus, Guillaume Andrieux, intent on making a dramatic scena of this piece, becomes pretentious and pedestrian. The significance of the contrast is that it leads into the chorus, ‘Hail! Great parent’, the biggest in the work and in the grand manner Handel took up later. Britten is generous in contrasted markings in this chorus too. His Majestic opening and its return are heavier than the smoothly flowing material between it and the crispness of the lively close, yet these supply dazzle and light to overcome the somewhat ponderous treatment of the more gargantuan elements - and I’d agree that the moment of homage, ‘Before your shrine the Seasons fall’ deserves Britten’s marking with breadth. However, d’Herin is equally effective, just being tauter at this point, while elsewhere his much faster tempo, his chorus taking 1:35 to Britten’s 2:16, is exhilarating even at a little sacrifice of clarity of text.
Now come the arias presenting the four seasons in turn. For Britten, soprano Mary Wells savours her entrance as Spring, freshly matching Britten’s marking gracefully with smooth roulades, while the string bass echoing the voice throughout is attractively clear. The piece takes 2:48 against d’Herin’s 1:43. The latter’s preference is for intimacy: a faster, bouncier orchestral introduction and an excited Caroline Mutel, though I find her roulades too jerky. For Summer, Britten wants the countertenor James Bowman to be gay and he has an attractive lightness of touch that manages to be both sprightly and lilting. A heartier approach is favoured by d’Herin, to which Samuel Boden brings a fitting relish. For Autumn, Britten’s orchestral introduction marking slow and spacious clarifies his romantic proclivities, as if moving from Summer’s G major to Autumn’s E minor requires tragic weight rather than simply a dignified richness and perhaps more retrospective quality. Britten’s introduction takes 1:00 in comparison with d’Herin’s 0:46, the whole piece 3:01 from Britten, the equivalent timing from d’Herin 2:14, discounting the repeat of the second part which Britten curiously doesn’t make. Britten’s tenor, Ian Partridge, however, does bring to the aria a rich, contemplative intensity and fine full tone which makes d’Herin’s tenor Anders Dahlin’s presentation, though of clear and clean focus, seem rather lightweight. Completely successful from Britten is the pathos of the soft chromatic descents of the orchestral introduction to Winter and fine judgement of bass John Shirley-Quirk’s delivery, a particularly apt initiative being his trill illustrating ‘trembling’. We don’t get the latter from d’Heron’s bass Frédéric Caton, who doesn’t invest the text with such colour, though d’Heron’s smaller group of period instruments bring a chillier atmosphere to the introduction. A repeat of the grand chorus ends the masque.
Now the salient characteristics that differentiate Britten’s account from d’Herin’s are clear. Britten’s modern orchestra brings a feel of lavish upholstery, where d’Herin’s period instruments bring lightness and a trimmed down quality. Britten’s slower tempi introduced more of a romantic perspective. However, on the matter of historically informed performance, I’d argue that Britten’s very clear yet lighter, less ostentatious treatment of ornamentation is easier to live with than d’Herin’s. Moreover, Britten’s singers quite often articulate the text with more sensitivity than d’Herin’s, partly a matter of tempo, partly of cultural nuance, that, unlike most of d’Herin’s singers, Britten’s are all English.
Britten’s second tableau, ‘Night and Silence’, begins with Purcell’s first music for Act 2 as Titania creates her own haven of ‘Fairy-Land’. In the Prelude, Britten’s string bass is over-sturdy, but the Fairy Spirit’s summoning the birds to appear is realized with great delicacy by countertenor Charles Brett before the ‘Instrumental Musick, in imitation of Birds’ is provided by piccolos shaded by oboes over bassoon. This is one of the most imaginative evocations of birdsong ever composed and I like the way Britten does it as straight music, not interpreting the stage direction too literally, like d’Herin and trying to make the tiniest recorders and harpsichord tweets sound like birds. It’s followed by ‘May the God of wit inspire’, described in the play text as ‘a Song in Three Parts, with Eccho’s’. The echoes are double ones, because of the lavish perspective of Titania’s fairyland: a soft vocal echo followed by a very soft shorter one. Purcell’s scoring is for three soloists, countertenor, tenor and bass. Britten’s scoring is for four-part chorus, its notable feature a very high soprano part, followed by the three soloists for the first echo and flutes and bassoon for the second. The four-part chorus seems to be following British Council MS op. 45 as criticized in Curtis Price’s Henry Purcell and the London Stage. Moreover, Britten uncharacteristically marks it quick. The outcome is a rather frenzied proclamation. Furthermore, the time for instrumental echoes is in the following Echo Dance in which the protagonists are trumpets and oboes. Both echoes in the chorus version should be vocal ones. Britten’s selection from Act 2 ends with the chorus ‘Now join your warbling voices all’, sanity restored with his marking gently flowing and his piccolos’ accompanying semiquaver runs glitteringly chirpy. But Purcell’s musical sequence adds a soprano song, ‘Sing while we trip it upon the green’ repeated first by chorus and then by strings as a Dance for Fairies. To cut this approximately 2:27 is to lose the scene’s sheer happiness at this point, though you have to search for a recording which includes the dance repeat, for example the English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv 4776733) made in 1981.
At this point, Britten inserts without cuts the Scene of the Drunken Poet from Act 1, the only example given of Titania’s Fairy-Spirits’ “harmless Sports”. The poet also stutters and Price’s book discusses if this specifically identifies him. This is comic opera in miniature, but it comes across too politely from Britten’s Owen Brannigan: too crisp for a convincing stutter and no slurring to show he’s drunk. Thomas Hemsley for Lewis is better, not very drunk but showing a curiously beguiling bumptiousness. This role calls for over-the-top characterization as supplied by the Gilbert and Sullivan specialist Richard Suart in the 1990 recording by The Sixteen/Harry Christophers (Coro COR 16005). The chief pleasure from Britten is the way the fairies Vyvyan and Wells weave around one another in interrogating the poet, Vyvyan the more stylish, though less bright and vivacious in her roulades in her opening solo, ‘Trip it, trip it, in a ring’ than in the Lewis recording. Another feature that Britten does well is the lovely slow coda, “Let ‘em sleep till break of day”, the text of which he changes to “Let ‘im sleep …” to avoid the complication of the play text’s three poets.
The mention of sleep allows Britten to add here, to close this tableau, the Night scene from Act 2 when Titania commands “Sing me now to Sleep”. For Purcell this immediately followed the scene which began this tableau and I think it would be better placed as originally with the drunken poet starting the tableau. A short Prelude features muted violins and violas. Britten marks this mysterious. I’m not sure it is, but it’s sustained yet smoothly, spellbindingly cantabile. As Night, Norma Burrowes’ solo, ‘See, even Night herself is here’ is pure toned but too intense, lacking tranquillity. This is a difficult solo, often in high tessitura and I had to search to find superb, soft assurance but it comes from Carolyn Sampson in a live 2001 recording with Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone (Arts 476792, now only available in the UK as a download or via Naxos Music Library). This heralds another masque with solos from Mystery, Secrecy and Sleep. For Britten, Vyvyan is Mystery, singing ‘I am come to lock all fast’, but is less at ease with his quick tempo, intended I presume to sound furtive, than in the Lewis recording, timing at 1:05 against Britten’s 0:43. At Lewis’ tempo Vyvyan is able to convey the text more sensitively. Secrecy’s solo, ‘One charming night’, is sung by a countertenor. For Britten, James Bowman is suitably seductive with the gyrations of his roulades hinting at the text’s promise of a thousand ways of prolonging pleasure. Britten’s obbligato flutes produce a creamier effect than the original recorders. Now comes John Shirley-Quirk as Sleep, the marking slow here absolutely right. You couldn’t have a gentler, more tender picture of Titania’s “sweet repose” and you notice something rare in baroque music, silences within the presentation, notably after “hush!” and “no noise”. This aria is elaborated in the four vocal parts of a chorus repeat where the extended treatment of suspensions on “softly” recalls those on “soft” in the final, elegiac chorus of Dido and Aeneas. These are the fairies Titania bids disperse, but there are too many of them in Britten’s recording, so the effect is a bit muddy: d’Herin’s chorus here has fine transparency. The scene is completed by A Dance for the Followers of Night, a wispy piece which Britten marks fantastic, has muted strings and you can enjoy the occasional featherlight demisemiquaver descents.
Britten’s third tableau, ‘The Sweet Passion’, fashioned from Purcell’s music for Act 3, begins with what Britten calls an overture but is really programme music, a Symphony while the Swans come forward, two swimming from way back on the stage and as they are about to land on the river bank turn into fairies and dance. Britten marks the introduction energetic, which swans aren’t, unless taking off to fly. It’s loud and ignores the music’s sense of gliding and gradual motion which Lewis achieves with graceful softness. However, the second section Britten marks very lively, but keeps light and dancing until a conventionally broader coda. The first song, ‘If Love’s a sweet passion’ with its own instrumental playthrough as prelude and chorus presentation of its second verse, originally happened before the swans came forward. It was then allotted to a soprano Nymph. Britten casts it for tenor Shepherd. Peter Pears gets across with exemplary elegance its suave line that nevertheless juggles both the sweetness and torment of love. The chorus sustains the mood and catches well the veiled excitement within the courtship.
Now Britten contrasts this joy of love found with the pain of that lost by inserting ‘The Plaint: O let me weep’, a song introduced in Act 5 in the work’s 1693 revival. In his book, Price calls it “interminable”, yet it’s an eloquent, sustained lament with obbligato violin or, as Britten chooses, oboe. The 2009 Purcell Society edition argues cogently that the attribution to violin is incorrect and, while I prefer violin because, being an instrument usually heard in this work in a group, its solo use emphasises the isolation of the abandoned lover, a period instrument oboe, as in d’Herin’s recording, can sound more plaintive. Curtis terms the ground bass “turgid”, but I suggest this is deliberate: a halting quality, not wanting to admit reality. When the singer does this with cries of “He’s gone” the ground bass vanishes and even Price admits this is moving. For Britten Vyvyan brings intense sorrow for which there seems no end in sight until “He’s gone” is faced and never seeing the loved one again is a kind of beauteous, elegiac closure. For Lewis, with violin, Vyvyan is more pained, her upper register less smooth, though the mono recording might be a factor, the agony more immediate than, with Britten, accumulated.
After this most searching item, Britten introduces the most comic, a Dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa from Act 3, transposed into B flat for mezzo and tenor rather than the G major for countertenor and bass of the 1693 revival. The comedy is increased when it’s clear to everyone except the wooing Coridon that Mopsa is really a man, but Alfreda Hodgson makes a fair job of being a wry battle-axe as substitute. Pears plays a heroic, cajoling lover and the increasingly fast tempo and frantic interplay add to the fun, but it remains rather polite. It needs to be more rustic which, for Christophers, bass Michael George with a Mummerset accent and countertenor Michael Chance switching between slightly coarse and assumed refined manage well with more variations of pace and the element of contest emphasised. The following Dance of Haymakers Britten treats breezily enough and the final music Purcell wrote for Act 3, the countertenor air ‘A thousand, thousand ways’ followed by chorus repeat and elaboration is emphasised as the matching of an ideal couple. This seems a rapid, scarcely credible, transformation of Coridon and Mopsa and I think it would have been better to have retained the originally intervening Prelude and soprano air, ‘When I have often heard young maids complaining’, which shows the female can be as cunning and opportunistic as the male. Instead, Britten adds a cheery Hornpipe and balmy Rondeau filched respectively from the semi-opera’s First and Second Music before curtain-up as a way of rounding off his tableau.
Britten’s final tableau, ‘Epithalamium’ begins brilliant, his marking, with the Sinfonia which opens Act 5 and the return of trumpets and drums. It’s a that pity one fine air with obbligato trumpet, ‘Thus the gloomy world at first began to shine’, a paean to pristine innocence, is cut, but the better known ‘Hark! th’ echoing air’ is here with both the uncredited trumpeter and Vyvyan sparkling, though the chorus ‘Hark!’ coda could be sprucer. The trumpet obbligato vanishes in the extant sources after CD2 tr. 2, 0:09 but Britten and Holst have created one which much enlivens the proceedings and gives impetus to Vyvyan’s projection, making for a more compelling account overall than with Lewis, though her roulades there are smoother. The work has to end with the “Universal Harmony” following the reconciliation of Titania and Oberon. This requires the summoning of Hymen, the God of Marriage, a rather conventional incantation type scene with Vyvyan the upper voice of the two attendants. She was the lower voice for Lewis, but Britten has observed the range of that is very much mezzo and so Hodgson takes it, in frightening battle-axe mode and rather upstaging Vyvyan. For Britten, Owen Brannigan’s Hymen is firmly focussed and I liked his unauthorized bottom E to indicate “false flames” aren’t good enough. The attendants really come to life now in the duet ‘Turn, turn then thine eyes’ where Vyvyan is joined by Wells as lower voice. For me there’s more steely fire here than necessary, as I feel the picture of flames shimmering on Hymen’s torch should sparkle as the voices imitate one another. For d’Herin, Hjőrdis Thébault and Caitlin Hulcup are more successful in this, aided by lighter, more nimble projection and some recorders’ doubling. No matter, Vyvyan and Wells are good enough for Brannigan to be happy about his torch shining and happiness is the key to the closing vocal item, ‘They shall be as happy as they’re fair’ presented first by Vyvyan, Wells and Brannigan before a repeat by chorus and tutti instruments. Britten keeps this all light with the first strain always repeated softly and adds an extra outing for Hodgson, an octave lower, Pears and Shirley-Quirk, so almost everyone gets a share of the bonhomie. Like I think all other recordings, Britten then places the Grand Dance Chaconne, though the play text makes clear this happens before ‘They shall be as happy’. But he adds an extra repeat of the tutti chorus afterwards so he turns out to be semi-authentic. Not so, however, with the Chaconne which begins majestic and turgid and contains similar heavy tone, romantic touches and over-emphasis I describe at the end of this review regarding his recording of the better-known Chaconne Z730. To give one example, the very soft ninth iteration of the ground-bass also marked solemnly (CD2, tr. 7, 1:55) sounds much more like crestfallen. From d’Herin we get a piece of swinging fun through the fourteen ground-bass iterations made more piquant by subtle variation. With d’Herin timing at 2:31 against Britten’s 3:34 you always know it’s a dance.
There are three ironic features regarding the ‘Music of Purcell’ disc whose first CD release on Decca this is. Firstly, it was the first complete stereo LP of Purcell in the UK, but this reissue is in mono because, although Eloquence requested the stereo, the tapes were either wiped over or couldn’t be found. Secondly, its longest item, five excerpts from The Tempest, is music no longer thought to be by Purcell but probably his pupil John Weldon. Thirdly, ‘Dear pretty youth’, the one song by Purcell in The Tempest, isn’t featured. However, Amphitrite’s aria in Act 5, ‘Halcyon days’ is a da capo aria with obbligato oboe almost worthy of Handel, sung here in its first recording by Vyvyan, whose lovely tone in the calmly rippling melody provides an idyll of pastoral contentment with a slightly more assertive central section for contrast. Timing at 6:30 to Vyvyan’s 5:44, Jennifer Smith with the Monteverdi Orchestra/John Eliot Gardiner in 1979 (Erato 2564698420) is a touch more intimate, relaxed and assured, with the bonus of lute in the continuo, but her added ornamentation in repeats for me distracts from the piece’s essential simplicity. The bravura bass aria ‘Arise, ye subterranean winds’ is the best of the other items. Hervey Alan sings it and Lewis plays it in rather quaintly chaste fashion. David Thomas with Gardiner brings more apt gusto and Gardiner’s clarity suggests more vividly the winds’ unpredictability.
Vyvyan features again singing ‘What shall I do to show how much I love her?’ from Act 3 of Purcell’s semi-opera Dioclesian, revealing the thoughts of Maximinian, Dioclesian’s nephew, as he gazes on Princess Aurelia and she, under a spell, transfers her love from Dioclesian to him. The text is over-the-top but the music enchants. It has a mantra quality because not only is it a strophic setting, it also begins as an instrumental Prelude in which two oboes hold the melody and, with Lewis, the care of its shaping and intimacy of its counterpoint is apparent. The oboes return between and after the vocal presentations. The timing for Lewis’s Prelude is 1:34, while that for John Eliot Gardiner directing the English Baroque Soloists and Lynne Dawson in 1987 (the same Erato 8CD box I mention above) is a more skipping, carefree 1:16. For Lewis, Vyvyan brings all the intensity of infatuation with a concentrated focus and piping high tessitura. For Gardiner, Dawson has a more laid back, thinking through the process, approach to the text. Her tripping ornamentation, which in Vyvyan’s account is minimal, in Dawson’s repeats of the second quatrains of both two stanza presentations which Vyvyan doesn’t make, emphasises her cunning.
The Sonata for Trumpet and Strings might have been the Overture to the 1694 ode ‘Light of the World’ which has been lost. In the opening movement the Purcell Society edition used suggests Pomposo, trumpeter Dennis Egan plays with an attractive zip and in the playful interplay is livelier than the rather boxy recording of the strings. The central suggested Adagio with its expressive sequences for strings without trumpet is a briefer taste of those in the overture to The Indian Queen. The finale, suggested Presto skips along confidently. However, I prefer the calmer exuberance of the period instruments of Mark Bennett and the solo strings of The Purcell Quartet recorded in 1994 (Chandos CHAN 0571) which also has a faster (1:26 to Lewis’s 1:42) but more stylishly weighted Adagio.
Purcell wrote nine pieces of instrumental music for Thomas D’Urfey’s play The Virtuous Wife, of which Lewis gives us three. The first is entitled March on this CD but would have to be of the stealthy kind. The 2010 Purcell Society Edition places it as the First Act Tune and it’s crisply done with agreeable variation of dynamic on repeats and I like the savoured quality that Lewis brings. Comparing the Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood period instrument recording first published in 1978 (available in Hogwood’s complete theatre music set on Decca 4755292), that has a more emphatic sense of purpose and direction, but efficiency isn’t everything. Lewis’s second item, called Minuet 1, is the Second Act Tune which, timing at 1:02, he makes relaxed and beguiling, yet possibly a dreamy Minuet. Timing at 0:48, Hogwood makes it heartily triumphant, the written even quavers all made dotted-quaver/semiquavers, more like a March. Lewis’s final item, called Minuet 2, is the Fourth Act Tune, a piece in D minor in which he finds a rich vein of pathos in the beauty of revealing the knotting and unravelling within its musical line. Hogwood’s rather heavily articulated account misses this, despite the sparkle of his added ornaments.
You could regard the Ciacona, i.e. Chaconne, in G minor as a marvellous piece of absolute music in the permutations of ground-bass, melodic extension of that and other variations, but as these also create a feel of changing moods it’s tempting to surmise it may have been written for a now unknown tragedy. Yet it’s fundamentally a dance, which means the pulse should be kept fairly active. The ground-bass is eight bars long and is repeated eighteen times. Already in its first iteration (tr. 17, 0:16) you can hear the first violins introduce an elaboration of the ground-bass above it. Iteration 2 (0:32) has a further elaboration from the first violins whose higher tessitura I feel better lends itself to quieter, most wistful treatment than Lewis brings to it. But Lewis contrasts a quieter manner in iteration 3 (0:48) so you appreciate the dotted-quaver-plus-semiquaver runs in the first violins lightly dancing over the ground. In iteration 7 (1:58) there is no bass part as the ‘ground’ is in the first violins, with second violins and violas dancing beneath it. In iteration 8 (2:12) the ground broods in the running quavers of the bass while the upper parts exult in rhetorical gestures above it and in iteration 9 (2:27) the first violins’ running quavers fill out these gestures as a passionate elaboration of the ground melody. Is this, however, too Romantic and theatrical a response partly caused by modern instruments and steel strings? The Chacony wouldn’t be played like this by a period instrument ensemble today with gut strings. In the quieter tenth iteration, without bass part, the ground aches expressively in the violas (2:41). In the glorious eleventh (2:56) the bass part returns with a very simple outline of the ground but what you appreciate is the equal power of the first violins’ passionate elaboration of the ground melody, justifiable here because it has been prepared in the piece, and the running quavers of the second violins. In the thirteenth, sorrowing iteration (3:25) the wistful counterpoise is between the first violins and the very clear violas, but in the fourteenth (3:41) the running quaver bass says “Cast all this nostalgia aside”. Those running quavers have a more beguiling, gentle comeliness in the first violins in iteration 16 (4:04). The seventeenth iteration (4:19) is the time for bringing things to a close and I find the attack with which Lewis opens this somewhat crudely severe where a firm acceptance of the state of things and resolve would be more fulfilling. The determination to make a strong start is to point the contrast of the eighteenth iteration (4:35) which is largely a soft repeat of the seventeenth with a slightly elaborated second violin part. It produces a sober yet tranquil farewell.
Lewis’s performance seems to me marred by his apparent need on occasion to jazz up the piece, but this is nothing to the treatment by the English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten in his 1968 recording of his realization published in 1965 (Decca 4761641, now available as a Presto CD). I compare this to warn you it’s more interventionist than his Fairy Queen. While the edition used by Lewis suggests Andante as a tempo, Britten has Majestic (not too slow). Britten’s overall timing is a markedly slower, 6:59 to Lewis’s 5:06. This creates a lumbering opening, but the second iteration is quieter and comelier than Lewis, even if its expressiveness is rather trowelled on, and the third quieter still so Lewis’s contrast is still accommodated, and here there is a sense of dance, though at Britten’s tempo it has a mincing quality. In iteration 5, Britten is right to bring the violas to the fore: but so too does Lewis (1:18). Britten’s iteration 7 is edgier than Lewis’s yet works well because the balance between the three parts is good. In iteration 8 Britten marks the bass quavers heavily, with over ponderous outcome, though the same marking is more effective for the first violins in iteration 9. Britten brings a triumphant edginess to iteration 11, but slows down in iteration 13 to squeeze the last tear from it, so it’s not surprising that iteration 17, which he marks sadly is also slow and in iteration 18 even the tortoise seems to be faltering, with the marking cold suggesting a death in an icy waste. I imagine Britten is aiming to do for Purcell what Stokowski did for Bach and there are some good bits, but my principal objection is his ignoring when it suits him the fundamental dance element of the piece. The Aradia Ensemble/Kevin Mallon (Naxos 8.554262) recorded in 1997 provide a well-balanced and stylish account on period instruments that always maintains this, bringing out the piece’s variety without excessive gestures and applying a creamy yet judicious doubling of the first violins by recorders.
I draw two conclusions from these reissues. Firstly, that the performance of baroque music has evolved significantly over the last 40 to 50 years, notably with the use of period instruments, but also that of smaller ensembles and thereby generally a defter, faster, more dance like approach. Secondly, however, a key feature that defines the continuing significance of historic performances is the special qualities and insights that vocal artists like Vyvyan, Pears and Shirley-Quirk, who particularly stand out in these reissues, bring to the characters their skill inhabits.