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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Dido and Aeneas - Opera in three acts (1689) [59:08]
Dido: Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Belinda; Second Woman; Spirit: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Aeneas: Thomas Hemsley (tenor)
‘First Lady’: Eilidh McNab (soprano)
Sorceress: Arda Mandikian (mezzo)
First Witch: Sheila Rex (soprano)
Second Witch: Anna Pollak (soprano)
First Sailor: David Lloyd (tenor)
The Mermaid Singers and Orchestra/Geraint Jones
rec. Abbey Road Studio No.1, London, 15, 27-28 March 1952
Dido and Aeneas: Thy hand, Belinda …When I am laid in earth [4:52]
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Warwick Braithwaite
rec. Abbey Road Studio No.1, London, 29 May 1948. mono. ADD
Booklet includes libretto


Experience Classicsonline

Given that EMI decides which of its recordings are to enter the series ‘Great Recordings of the Century’, the first question regarding a new arrival must be ‘Is it?’. In this case I’d say yes, but only for Kirsten Flagstad’s Dido. There are several accomplished Didos on disc but for me only two great ones: this 1952 Flagstad and Janet Baker’s 1961 recording, because both give a balanced portrayal of the majestic queen and passionate woman. With Flagstad’s first appearance in the aria ‘Ah! Belinda, I am pressed with torment’ (tr. 3), because of her richness of tone and ability to attack, we’re plunged deeply into grief and drama. Flagstad’s phrasing and its progression seems to have an inner fire compelling the expression forward, fast but never seeming rushed and accommodating the roulades, for instance on ‘languish’ (1:50) as a natural expression of the words. The two closing statements of ‘Peace and I are strangers grown’ are shaded a little more softly and slowly, treated as a reflective echo, as if the earlier veil of reserve gently slips away. It anticipates the further meditation provided by the immediately following ritornello for strings.

Interestingly the expansive 1952 approach to recitative seems more flexible than today, merging more readily into arioso. So Dido’s ‘Whence could so much virtue spring?’ (tr. 5) in articulation which points up the rapid notes savours Aeneas’s valour with relish and colour. It then treats the slower rhythms with expansive poise to depict Aeneas’ softness in peacetime. ‘Mine with storms of care oppressed’ is even more vivid in its contrast as Flagstad’s Dido, divulging her love, paints a self portrait of her inner turmoil yet capacity for pity. This is an excellent example of how freedom in rhythm and tempo and superbly judged phrasing, particularly at ‘ah! – I fear’ (1:52) fully realizes the recitative’s dramatic possibilities and shapes it to a fitting climax. That the recording was based on stage performances given at the Mermaid Theatre gives it a theatrical dimension, a key aspect of its authentic feel.

Come the final scene, ‘Your counsel all is urged in vain’ (tr. 34) has a gazing tragic reflection of epic quality. ‘Thy hand, Belinda; darkness shades me’ (tr. 36) has still more tragic edge which accords both weight and immediacy. After this, Dido’s lament, ‘When I am laid in earth’ (tr. 37) is more flowing, accepting, beautifully shaped, a self-created perfect epitaph. ‘Remember me’ is varied in its appearance from searing commands to pleading prayers. The purity of Flagstad’s upper range is memorable throughout.

Janet Baker’s Dido, with the English Chamber Orchestra/Anthony Lewis (Decca Legends 4663872) isn’t as rich as Flagstad’s but has youth and freshness. In 1961 she was 28 whereas in 1952 Flagstad was 57. Hearing her, you don’t think of Flagstad as old but as having the authority of experience. Baker on the other hand definitely conveys the impression of a young queen and her tragedy is the more poignant. Baker’s ‘Ah! Belinda’ aria is also impelled forward and the attention to authentic style, in ornamenting repeats, a touch more artificial. She brings a brighter tone and more melting softer moments Her recitatives are delivered at a more natural speech rhythm which diminishes contrast and gives more emphasis on their formal and less humane quality than with Flagstad. Baker’s ‘Thy hand, Belinda’ is more feminine and fragile while her lament has both stateliness and a pure, childlike simplicity - a performance as riveting as Flagstad’s.

Aside from Flagstad’s contribution this Geraint Jones version is uneven. He makes a good case for an expansive opening slow section to the Overture which is lachrymose indeed and sung by the strings with feeling. This effect is however spoilt by a square and solid quick section. The Triumphing Dance at the end of Act 1 (tr. 12) is similarly stilted but the eerie miasma of the witches’ environment which opens Act 2 is well conveyed by the sustained and soft treatment given the Prelude (tr. 13).

Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s Belinda achieves a stimulatingly sprightly ‘Haste, haste to town’ (tr. 25) which inspires the chorus repeat to comparable crispness. Her earlier ‘Pursue thy conquest, Love’ (tr. 10) has, on the other hand, a rather ragged heartiness. Purcell’s care in not upstaging Dido, whose role is fairly economically treated in the opera anyway, by having several female soloists, is thrust aside in giving Schwarzkopf other roles. She appears as Second Woman in the court and the Sorceress’s Spirit, switching to the forces of evil. So after a sweetly reflective ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’ (tr. 22) as Belinda she has to provide a quite different perspective for ‘Oft she visits this lone mountain’ (tr. 23) as the Second Woman. She invests this with growing tension but the opportunity for an authentic and more marked contrast of a different voice is lost. In ‘Stay, Prince, and hear great Jove’s command’ (tr. 26) as the Spirit Schwarzkopf is even more tense and peremptory in manner. Listening innocently you may well wonder how her distinctive voice drifted into that role. In the Mermaid Theatre performances, in which Schwarzkopf didn’t participate, different singers sang the three roles she assumes in the recording studio.

Arda Mandikian’s Sorceress is deliberate and concentrated but for me insufficiently malicious; I feel that generally about the witches. The Lewis recording may seem hammy in making their delivery very nasal and the ‘Ho, ho’ choruses just a long cackle but that’s exactly the contrast that was intended. For Jones, Thomas Hemsley’s Aeneas fails to benefit from the slow recitative. Rather he comes across as a limp poseur, at first prissy and later, when he’s ordered to abandon Dido, crestfallen. At least Raimund Herincx for Lewis is more manly. However, in fairness I should point out that Jonathan Woolf reviewing the Naxos Historical transfer of the 1952 Jones recording, to which I provide a link below, has a higher opinion than I do of Mandikian and Hemsley.        

As a bonus with the present EMI GROC under review comes Flagstad’s 1948 recording of ‘Thy hand, Belinda’ and Dido’s lament. Despite being faster this is a more studied account. The recitative’s actual timing in 1948 is 0:53, in 1952 1:05 but in the later recording the greater poise to the pacing makes the articulation of the words more graphic. The aria’s actual timing in 1948 is 3:54, in 1952 4:00. There’s an imposing, epic declamation in the earlier account and a weightier, more sepulchral accompaniment. The later recording’s smaller orchestra sings the line and so prepares for the smoother vocal phrasing while the contrasting vocal pleading element is only found in the later recording. In short, the later performance is more lived, as you would expect following Flagstad’s playing the role on stage at The Mermaid.

This new EMI transfer gives plenty of immediacy to the vocal soloists. It’s a touch smoother than its CD predecessor on EMI Références CDH 7610062 published in 1987 which is presumably down to EMI’s ‘noise shaping’ but not, I feel, so different that it would be worth replacing if you already have the earlier CD. The present reissue does have a preferable, more airy, open tone than the transfer published earlier this year on Naxos 8.111264 (review). The harpsichord is less prominent in the EMI transfer, and this is to advantage. The violin tone is more crisp, for instance in the ritornello of the ‘Ah! Belinda’ aria. The Naxos transfer, though commendably smooth, being taken from commercial pressings rather than masters, also has a trace of residual surface noise.

In a well documented booklet note John Steane points out, as have other sources before him, that the recording was made at Abbey Road on three days in February 1952. Four earlier attempts to record live at the Mermaid Theatre had proved unsatisfactory. I have cited the Abbey Road dates in the heading. Curiously the present reissue cites for the recording five Mermaid Theatre dates, 15-16 October, 30 November and 1-2 December 1951 but only one Abbey Road, 15 February 1952. Another intriguing point about this recording is that Stephen Pettitt’s Philharmonia Orchestra discography states “Recording ledgers make it clear that the Philharmonia Orchestra participated in this recording under the name of “The Mermaid Orchestra”.

If you want only one recording of Dido and Aeneas I’d recommend the Baker/Lewis because Baker is arguably as fine a Dido as Flagstad. Also the supporting roles and orchestral playing are more idiomatic, as well as the recording being in stereo. If, on the other hand, you wish to appreciate the range of expression and nuance within the role of Dido, this Flagstad recording remains indispensable.

Michael Greenhalgh


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