05 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Henry & Daniel Purcell – THE PURCELLS: VOCAL WORKS WITH BASSO CONTINUO (Delia Agúndez, soprano; enchiriadis EN 2042)

CD REVIEW: Henry & David Purcell - THE PURCELLS (enchiriadis EN 2042)HENRY PURCELL (1659 – 1695) and DANIEL PURCELL (1664 – 1717): The Purcells – Vocal Works with Basso continuoDelia Agúndez, soprano; Manuel Minguillón, archlute and Baroque guitar; Laura Puerto, harpsichord and organ; Ruth Verona, cello [Recorded in el Aula de Música de la Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, Spain, in September 2014; enchiriadis EN 2042; 1 CD, 53:01; Available from ClassicsOnline HD, Amazon, and major music retailers]

Little as is known about England's greatest native-born composer of the Baroque era, Henry Purcell, even less can be cited as fact about his kinsman Daniel. Exasperatingly, it cannot be ascertained with absolute confidence whether these esteemed gentlemen were brothers or lesser relations. The conclusion that they were children of the same parents is logical, but anecdotal evidence also exists that suggests that they may actually have been cousins. Whatever the circumstances of their family ties may have been, what is undoubted is that, in the artistic milieu of late-Seventeenth-Century England, Henry and Daniel Purcell were brethren in music. Building upon the foundations laid by John Dowland, Thomas Campion, and John Blow, the Purcells furthered and refined the arts of the quintessentially English consort song and the cantata da camera. Perhaps no other tradition in Western music has proved more enduring than that honed by this pair, the basic tenets of part-writing and ground bass epitomized by the vocal music of Henry and Daniel Purcell influencing modern composers ranging from Britten, Tippett, and Adès to Howard Goodall and even Roger Daltrey. Looking across the Channel, The Purcells fascinatingly explores the reach of the Purcells' music beyond the British Isles with outstanding performances by a quartet of gifted musicians: soprano Delia Agúndez, lutenist and Baroque guitarist Manuel Minguillón, harpsichordist and organist Laura Puerto, and cellist Ruth Verona. When the music of Monteverdi, Charpentier, and Schütz is played throughout the world, why should performances of the Purcells' works be confined to locales where English is the native language? Shortchanging none of the peculiar inflections of the English texts, the charismatic, affectionate outings on The Purcells revel in the Continental accents of the music. They were perhaps as devoted a pair of denizens of their 'fairest Isle' as any artists who ever populated it, but what cosmopolitan chaps these Purcells also were!

In the works for voice and basso continuo selected for this disc, the four musicians truly cooperate as equals rather than assuming the traditional arrangement of soloist and accompanists. Playing archlute and Baroque guitar, Minguillón strums bewitching sounds from his strings, recalling both the lute-song tradition of Britain and Spain's extravagantly ritualized troubadour culture. Puerto contributes a thoughtfully-differentiated panoply of tones, the organic blending of her phrasing with the singer's conjuring thoughts of how it must have sounded when Farinelli accompanied his own singing at the Spanish court in the 1750s. Few tasks in Early Music can be more thankless than that of playing continuo violoncello, but the forthright immediacy of Verona's playing discloses that, in truth, the endeavors of many of her colleagues do not earn thanks: she, however, is a participant in the music, not a cipher merely supplying anchoring bass notes in cadence chords. Soprano included, these musicians constitute a true consort of a type now all but extinct.

Daniel Purcell is represented on The Purcells by four superbly-crafted Arcadian cantatas that display inspiration and craftsmanship not markedly inferior to those familiar from the work of his more-famous relative. Precisely when or for whom these cantatas were written is not known, but these scores hint at a familiarity with the music of Italian composers like Frescobaldi, Merula, and Barbara Strozzi—and with the mature style of the more familiar Purcell, naturally. Agúndez sails into the first of the cantatas with a brightly-hued voicing of the recitative 'Within a verdant grove poor Strephon lay.' She follows this with a gorgeously understated account of the despondent aria 'Who can bear the pangs of despair,' each sustained tone purred like a sigh from the lovesick swain. Singing of the relief of the poor lad's distress in the recitative 'The god of Love ove'heard the shepherd's sigh' and aria 'Lovely shepherd sigh no more,' the soprano's timbre glistens with the golden light of a sylvan sunset. Her musical partners surround her voice with a halo of sound that convincingly places her in Strephon's bucolic environs.

The recitative with which the cantata 'She whom above myself I prize' begins is sung—and played—with an air of ambivalence that heightens the irony of the subsequent aria 'Why was she made so fair?' Both the aria and the recitative 'Ye gods, must I for ever love?' are sung with compelling emotional directness, the laser-like focus of Agúndez’s voice reflected by the sympathetic support of her colleagues. The purity of the soprano’s line in the aria ‘See there she walks’ beguilingly buoys the images conjured by the text and gives great pleasure in a purely musical sense. Likewise, the childlike delight that ripples through her voicing of the recitative ‘The god of Love around the temple flies’ is utterly charming—fittingly so when the aria that follows demands, ‘Charmer, turn those eyes on me.’ In this music, it is Agúndez herself who is the charmer, her voice illuminating Purcell’s melodies with tones as clear as midwinter moonlight.

The pair of cantatas imparting the amorous travails of first Apollo and Daphne and then Septimius and Acme are, like their companions on this disc, coolly seductive pieces that impress both with their sophistication and the consistent level of accomplishment. Singer and musicians unite in an articulation of the recitative ‘Wild as despair the tim'rous Daphne flew’ that bristles with the stinging essence of the words, and the desperation in which Agúndez shrouds her voice in the aria ‘Dearest Daphne do not fly me’ is indicative of the soprano’s insightful, thorough comprehension not only of the text but also of the composer’s method of translating verbal sentiments into unique sonic moods. In the recitative ‘Thus said he rudely seiz'd the trembling maid’ and the concluding aria, ‘Phoebus while you're such a rover,’ Agúndez sonorously proves the depth of her acquaintance with the specific anatomies of Purcell’s musical figures. Singing of Catullus’s Septimius and Acme, Agúndez’s voice takes on a degree of grandeur that, belying the compactness of the tone, ideally heralds the lovers’ idealism. Gaining strength from her colleagues’ alert playing, she proclaims the recitative ‘Whilst on Septimius panting breast’ with energy that propels her voicing of the aria ‘My dearest Acme’ from the merely lovely to the profoundly beautiful. The urgency of her ‘Acme inflam'd with what he said’ gives way to a measured, understatedly ecstatic performance of the aria ‘My little life.’ The curiously modern sensibilities of the soprano’s sculpting of the vocal line in this celebration of Acme’s ‘little life’ transcends the conventions of Purcell’s time, admitting Agúndez’s delicate but whole-hearted characterization into the company of Puccini’s piccole donne Mimì and Liù.

In comparison with his elder relative's music in a similar vein, the foremost limitation of Daniel Purcell’s style is a sameness that undermines the individuality of these cantatas, with Strephon, Phoebus, Septimius, and their ladies ultimately sounding as though they are interchangeable. The performances on this disc make it clear that the composer is at fault for this: Agúndez, Minguillón, Puerto, and Verona laudably endeavor to differentiate each cantata from its companions, musically and histrionically, but, being too intelligent to betray the precepts of their artistry, their sterling efforts are only partially successful. Still, the opportunity to hear these cantatas—indeed, any music by Daniel Purcell—so masterfully performed would mitigate flaws far more debilitating than this.

None of the pieces by Henry Purcell on this disc is unknown, but it is rare even for performances by the same artists in the context of a single disc to be of a quality as uniformly high as is achieved here. The musicians establish an atmosphere of stylistic lucidity with a first-rate playing of the Almand de la Suite No. 2 in G minor (Z661). Enshrining lines from the unjustly-neglected Abraham Cowley’s The Mistress, the composer's 1680 setting of 'She loves and she confesses too' (Z413) was among the most popular of Purcell’s compositions during the last two decades of the Seventeenth Century, and the performance on this disc fully divulges the music’s appeal. Of an altogether different but no less attractive disposition is 'Incassum Lesbia, incassum rogas' (Z383), a sublimely heartfelt C-minor elegy from Purcell's music of mourning for Queen Mary. Agúndez sings the piece with sincerity that wholly avoids even the faintest insinuation of lugubriousness, presenting it as a very personal statement of grief. The simple, strophic construction of ‘Ah! How pleasant 'tis to love’ (Z353), so reminiscent of ‘Fear no danger to ensue’ from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, frees Agúndez’s imagination to take wing in contemplation of the untainted joy of love. Here performed in its second version, dating from 1693, 'If music be the food of love' (Z379B) is often mistaken for a setting of a text by Shakespeare, but, apart from its opening line from Twelfth Night, the text is actually by Henry Heveningham. Were the text written by an anonymous schoolboy, this performance could not be more stirring. Agúndez caresses the top B♭ with an untroubled elegance that should be studied by young Toscas facing the same note in ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore.’ The intimate tone of Bishop William Fuller’s text for the glorious G-major ‘An Evening Hymn’ (Z193) inspires Agúndez and friends to a performance of disarming straightforwardness, the intelligibility of the soprano’s diction permitting the listener to bask in the warmth of Purcell’s potent word-setting. The moving C-minor chaconne ‘O solitude, my sweetest choice’ (Z406), employing verses from Katherine Philips’s lyrical translation of a French text, can justifiably be cited as the zenith of Purcell’s career as a composer of song and in this performance sounds it. The sense of wonder that floods Agúndez’s singing as the shifting harmonies decry ‘their hard fate’ is as satisfying an instance of the comforting power of music as has ever been recorded.

The Purcells is a disc that perfectly illustrates that in today’s Classical Music industry—and, for better or [mostly] worse, it emphatically is an industry and not solely an artistic entity—possessing a beautiful voice and a well-integrated technique is insufficient to lay siege to an hour of a modern listener’s time. Delia Agúndez certainly has a beautiful voice, and she and Manuel Minguillón, Laura Puerto, and Ruth Verona exhibit techniques that find in these selections by Daniel and Henry Purcell a natural habitat. These are performances, however, that, while underscoring the failings of other musicians’ exertions, also bring to mind Auden’s words in ‘Funeral Blues’: ‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, / Prevent the dog from barking.’ The Purcells demands that every device be switched off, every noise silenced, every distraction cast aside: brothers or cousins, the Purcells relate through the music-making preserved on this disc as pointedly and as memorably to Twenty-First-Century listeners as to those fortunate souls who first heard these ‘sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.’