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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Complete Purcell Realizations

CD 1: Songs from Orpheus Britannicus
The knotting song (1939, publ. 1994) [2:04] JB
Seven songs (1947): Fairest Isle [2:20] FL; If music be the food of love [4:10] JMA;
Turn then thine eyes [1:34] JMA; Music for a while [3:14] SW; Pious Celinda [1:25] IB; I:ll sail upon the Dog-star [1:23] RJ; On the brow of Richmond Hill [1:50] ARJ
Six songs (1948): Mad Bess [5:23] SW; If music be the food of love [2:08] FL; There:s not a swain of the plain [0:52] IB; Not all my torments [2:41] JB; Man is for the Woman made [1:07] ARJ; Sweeter than roses [3:42] FL
O Solitude (1955) [6:28] JMA
Five songs (1960): I attempt from Love:s sickness to fly [2:12] SG; I take no pleasure [1:44] IB; Hark the ech:ing air! [2:28] FL; Take not a woman:s anger ill [1:28] JMA; How blest are Shepherds [3:29] JMA
Celemene (1946, publ. 1994) [3:52] SG, IB
Six duets (1961): Sound the Trumpet [2:24] ARJ, JMA; I spy Celia [4:05] IB, RJ; Lost is my quiet [3:18] SG, SW; What can we poor females do? [1:12] SG, SW; No, Resistance is but vain [5:35] SW, RJ; Shepherd, leave decoying [1:17] SG, SW
CD 2: Songs from Harmonia Sacra
The Queen's Epicedium (1946) [7:24] IB
The Blessed Virgin:s Expostulation (1947) [7:25] FL
Saul and the witch at Endor (1947) [11:46] SW, JMA, SK
Three divine hymns (1947): Lord, what is man? [6:09] FL; We sing to him [1:54] JB; Evening hymn [4:35] FL
Job's Curse (1950) [5:08] SK
Two divine hymns and Alleluia (1960) [9:41] ARJ
Dulcibella (1971, publ. 1994) [2:09] IB, RJ
When Myra sings (1971, publ. 1994) [2:45] IB, RJ
Let the dreadful engines of eternal will (1971) [7:57] SK
Felicity Lott, Susan Gritton (sopranos); Sarah Walker (mezzo); James Bowman (counter-tenor); John Mark Ainsley, Ian Bostridge, Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenors); Richard Jackson, Simon Keenlyside (baritone); Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, London, 5–10 January 1995. DDD.
HYPERION DYAD CDD22058 [70:17 + 73:20] 

 


Over quite a period of time now I have been listening to these two generously filled discs, searching for reasons not to buy this release. What a pleasure it is to say that I have not thought of a single one.

If Britten’s only legacy was that he brought Purcell’s music once again into wider circulation, he would have earned my gratitude. What we have is not just a playing of Purcell’s music. After all, Purcell only wrote the bass part as an indication of the intended harmony with the voice. Britten’s role is to fill out the harmony of the continuo part, which he does with sensitivity and respect for Purcell, but also allowing some of his own personality to shine through. To my ears though, Purcell remains the dominant composer. It should be noted also that Britten viewed these realizations not as dry, academic exercises, but pieces intended for active performance, which he sought to do in partnership with Peter Pears.

Twelve years ago, when this release was recorded, the nine singers included in this set were either at the start or height of their careers. It is typical of Hyperion and Graham Johnson’s approach to recording that specific singers are paired with the songs they are so that the voice type can bring out some inference from the text.

Of the individual performances here, there is only one song that sounds less than ideal, and it is The Knotting Song, which opens the first CD. James Bowman’s tone is a touch forced, as his voice seems lacking in the suppleness that it had in former years. His diction though is perfectly acceptable. He sounds put under less pressure by much of the other material he sings, and overall – as with other singers included – it is good to have his involvement given his long association with Britten’s music.

The three sets of realizations dating from 1947, 1948 and 1960 that occupy the majority of CD 1 show the singers in solo repertoire, occasionally giving the possibility to hear the same text under different settings and voices. Felicity Lott’s reading of “If music be the food of love” from the second set beguiles more directly than John Mark Ainsley’s reading of the first set’s treatment. He does use the text with intelligence though. Many of the songs were made famous by Alfred Deller – though he employed other realizations – such as “Music for a while”. Sarah Walker manages to convey enough ethereal spirit to still the passage of time for a moment as Johnson delights in Britten’s accompaniment.

Walker’s talents are also usefully employed in some of the Six Duets, realized in 1961. Vocally she finds sympathetic partners in Susan Gritton, with her bright, agile soprano, and Richard Jackson’s richly-hued baritone. Ian Bostridge and Anthony Rolfe Johnson bring the qualities of word pointing that have made them such admirable interpreters of Britten’s own music to Purcell. Indeed, they draw out much of the drama that is inherent in the settings – the point that first caused Britten to promote Purcell’s cause.

CD 2 sees the nature of the repertoire change to more sacred ends with the Divine Hymns, which Rolfe Johnson and Lott sing with sensitivity between them. Of greater musical interest, it seems to me, are the longer solo songs and the trio “Saul and the Witch at Endor”, most of which Simon Keenlyside contributes to with certainty of purpose and a finely shaped sense of line. Little more proof should be needed of the dramatic attraction of Purcell’s music that the reading he gives of “Let the dreadful engines of eternal will”, which closes both disc and set. In it, all manner of passions and powers are stated and suggested in a manner infinitely suggestive of something beyond any one man’s grasp.

The recording throughout is clear and atmospheric.

The release is supported by excellent yet concise notes by David Trendell. The full song texts are given also, though in most cases their inclusion is something of a luxury given the excellent diction of all the singers. Most strongly recommended, particularly at bargain price! 

Evan Dickerson 

 


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