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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Dido and Aeneas - opera in three acts (1689) [53:46]
Dido: Julianne Baird (soprano)
Belinda: Andrea Lauren Brown (soprano)
Aeneas: Timothy Bentch (tenor)
Second Woman: Patricia Conrad (soprano)
Sorceress: Tatyana Rashkovsky (mezzo)
First Witch: Jennifer Graf (soprano)
Second Witch: Kemper LeCroy (soprano)
Spirit: Fran Bjomeby Kraemer (mezzo)
First Sailor: Dennis Kalup (tenor)
The Fairy Queen Suite (1692) [11:12]
Ama Deus Baroque Ensemble/Valentin Radu
rec. Arch Street United Methodist Church, Philadelphia, 17-18 February 2007. DDD.
Booklet includes libretto in English
LYRICHORD LEMS 8057 [64:58]

 


It’s been four years since a stereo only recording of Dido and Aeneas has appeared. I shall compare this new one from Valentin Radu with his predecessor, Le Concert d’Astrée/Emmanuelle Haim (Virgin 5456052). Purcell’s only full opera is a difficult work to perform because everything happens so quickly there’s little time to get all the effects right. Radu starts well with an Overture whose introduction is quite pacy before a second section, marked ‘Quick’ still more so, which gives an impression of extreme bustle, restless and urgent. Haim’s quick section is lighter and friskier. Radu throughout uses strings only with theorbo or baroque guitar and harpsichord. This gives an intimate, small scale theatre feel. Haim doubles the strings at times with oboes, recorders and bassoon and also uses organ and archlute continuo. This makes for a somewhat grander effect and allows her the opportunity of contrast in repeats by adding or removing the doubling instruments. Overall this makes a more vivid impact.

For Radu Andrea Lauren Brown is cajoling as sister Belinda in her arioso to Dido, Shake the cloud from off your brow, with arrestingly florid ornamentation for the repeat of the refrain. For Haim Camilla Tilling is more assertive, a queen in waiting. Radu’s chorus of courtiers, Banish sorrow, banish care, has a more rugged than smooth character. Haim’s chorus is more assured and courtly, as it is generally.

For Radu Julianne Baird’s Dido is a passionate, imposing presence in her opening aria, Ah Belinda, I am press’d with torment but with a recurring element of sotto voce, for example at ‘I languish’ (tr. 3 1:41) vividly conveys the personal, secretive quality about the infatuation which haunts this aria. Her generous application of ornamentation on repeats, however, suggests rather more artifice in her make-up though the crestfallen quality Radu gives the orchestral ritornello which concludes the aria mirrors her earlier sotto voce. For Haim Susan Graham’s Dido combines a fiery imperiousness and melting sorrow impressively but is less engaging because less womanly. She makes the aria, which is marked ‘Slow’ more stately, taking 4:06 against Baird’s 3:20. By varying the tempo in the following recitative Baird sensitively contrasts the soft and fierce aspects of Aeneas and then provides an eloquent indication of her capacity for pity. She does this more effectively than Graham. Also in this Lyrichord recording the Second Woman is better differentiated from Belinda and Dido by being a little further back which puts her firmly in her place in the hierarchy. Similarly she’s very much the backdrop in her duet with Belinda, Fear no danger to ensue, which is fair enough given that Belinda has the top Gs and adds showy ornaments.

For Radu Timothy Bentch’s Aeneas emphasises the lyrical overmuch at the expense of the dramatic with the result that by his second recitative he’s in bleating mode. For Haim Ian Bostridge presents a more manly, rounded Aeneas. For Radu Belinda’s Pursue thy conquest, Love is too savoured, not conveying the momentum intended by the marking ‘Quick’. Haim’s Belinda has a more breathless character. Yet Radu’s following chorus and Triumphing Dance have the requisite eagerness, the orchestra with the folksy decking of harpsichord and baroque guitar.

In Act 2 Scene 1 for Radu Tatyana Rashkovsky’s Sorceress has an appropriate archness but her diction and intonation falter from time to time. Curiously this makes her more exotic. The First and Second Witch are unctuously attentive and their duet, But ere we this perform, is of spiteful clarity and relish. The chorus of witches has great fun with Harm’s our delight and a closing shriek as a bonus. Their Ha ha chorus is a true cackle but the fast tempo given to the echo chorus blunts its venom. The echoes are distant and sepulchral but the effect should be just as marked for the soft passages in the following Echo Dance of Furies. For Haim Felicity Palmer’s Sorceress has surer tone and malevolence only thinly veiled but the witches, singly and in chorus are more and I’d say too polite, Haim’s emphasis being on the virtuosity of Purcell’s music.

In Act 2 Scene 2 for Radu Belinda’s Thanks to these lonesome vales is pleasingly savoured and stylishly ornamented, a case where all the artifice of the court is appropriate, but the chorus repeat takes a while to match her assurance with its own ornaments. Haim’s Belinda is too intense here though her chorus is more relaxed. From Radu the Second Woman’s Oft she visits this lone mountain, the one ground bass aria not sung by Dido, disappointingly lacks tension because, timing at 1:40, it’s taken too slowly whereas Haim at 0:57 takes it too quickly which blunts the tension that is nevertheless more apparent. For Radu Belinda’s Haste, haste to town and the chorus repeat are delivered with a trim clarity that impairs the momentum better realized by Haim. Fran Bjomeby Kraemer’s Spirit of the Sorceress for Radu is distinguished by being distanced in a supernaturally reverberant acoustic but her wobbly vibrato is less effective. Haim uses a countertenor, David Daniels, which creates a supernatural effect without any distortion of tone. For Radu Bentch’s Aeneas makes the best of his arioso Jove’s commands shall be obeyed, taking his time to show his emotions unfolding, with an anguished rising ornament on ‘weigh’d’ and fine sotto voce effects beginning at ‘But ah’ (tr. 10 1:13), though the expansive added appoggiatura on the final ‘die’ veers towards indulgent self pity. For Haim Bostridge, resolute but tormented, is more convincingly heroic if not as human as Bentch.

Come Act 3 Scene 1 for Radu Dennis Kalup’s First Sailor is unmemorable and rather upstaged by the guitar accompaniment just as the livelier chorus repeat is by an added tambourine, a nice touch which continues in the following Sailors’ Dance. For Haim Paul Agnew sports an appropriate sailor class accent, after which the chorus seems curiously posh. Radu’s First and Second Witches’ duet, Elissa’s ruin’d! ho ho! inhabits an uneasy midpoint between being fast and cackling and slow and malicious. The following chorus settles on cackling. Haim’s witches, as earlier, focus on the virtuosity of Purcell’s music and the chorus is again too polite but her Witches’ Dance, beginning quietly and later growingly flamboyant, is itself a bit of magic.

For Radu Baird’s arioso opening the final scene, Your counsel all is urg’d in vain, sets the tone of tragic dignity and nobility within the context of a personal affront. The exchange of recitative and duet with Aeneas is taken quite slowly to well considered effect. A crestfallen Aeneas turns to a desperate one while Dido throughout has a concentrated understanding of the situation. For Haim Graham’s arioso has a passionately regal, epic quality. Aeneas is sorrowful but resolute, then changes his resolution. For Radu the chorus Great minds against themselves conspire is rather matter-of-fact in its pacy approach where Haim gives it a more epic sense of philosophy, mirroring Dido’s immediately preceding clearsightedness. For Radu Baird brings moving anguish and pathos, as well as courageous resolve to Dido’s Lament. Consistently for Haim Graham shows a more epic quality of epitaph, though the final ‘Remember me’ is softened, as Baird does for the entire repeat. In the final chorus Radu shows how the smooth formality of funeral rite gives way to a growing personal protest from ‘Soft and gentle’ (tr. 16 0:53) as the rhythms break up. Radu realizes this more starkly than Haim and also makes the repeat on instruments alone.

As a bonus Radu gives us ten instrumental items from The Fairy Queen, the semi opera, that’s half opera, half play. It’s an anonymous, very free adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but that’s not enough reason to call this bonus A Midsummer Night’s Dream suite. It begins with the Prelude before curtain up, played with fair gusto but the first section repeat quieter, as is consistently done with repeats. Next the Hornpipe, also before curtain up, neatly articulated with an airy skipping quality but rather thin in tone. Then the Overture in Act 3, Symphony while the Swans come forward, begins more gracefully but its second section is rather shapeless. The following item, here called ‘Air’, is the Prelude to Act 3, an instrumental version of the soprano song If love’s a sweet passion which is played with an unassuming grace. This is followed by the Rondeau from the music before curtain up, played lightly and fleetly. Now comes the vibrant Prelude to Act 2 which has a fair density because of the crisp handling of the semiquaver clusters. The Entry Dance from Act 5 is next and is light on its toes. The Third Act Tune Hornpipe is nifty, followed by, also from Act 3, the Dance for the Fairies, clearly and deftly articulated, the small scale appropriate to fairies. Finally comes the closing Chaconne which goes with a fair swing and is generally crisply done. The third appearance of the ground (tr. 26 0:23) is delicate, the fourth (0:35) jauntier, though the seventh (1:08) needs to be gentler with a bit more space and the twelfth (2:17) more jubilant before the triumphant thirteenth (2:29). As sometimes here and in Dido, a little more density of string tone would be advantageous.

There are sound samples for all tracks available on the Lyrichord website. To sum up, this CD is good in parts, especially Baird’s Dido, but it’s not consistently effective.

Michael Greenhalgh 

 

 


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