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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Theatre Music - Volume 1
Amphytrion, or the Two Sosias, Z.572 [25:19]
Sir Barnaby Whigg, Z.589 [3:49]
The Gordion Knot Unty’d, Z.597 [17:00]
Circe, Z.575 [13:25]
Michelle Kettrick (soprano); Andrea Jeffrey (soprano); Nicole Bower (soprano); Giles Tomkins (bass); Roz Mcarthur (alto); Neil Aronoff (bass); Peter Mahon (counter-tenor); Brian Duyn (tenor)
Aradia Ensemble/Kevin Mallon
rec. 25-29 April 2006, Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto, Canada. DDD
NAXOS 8.570149 [59:32]
Experience Classicsonline

Kevin Mallon and his Canadian Aradia (not ‘Arcadia’, it’s to be noted) Ensemble have set expectations high in recent releases: his Charpentier Masses and Christmas CDs (also on Naxos, 8.557229 and 8.557036) are exemplary and satisfy the most demanding listener. Just as elegant and full of poise is their Music for the Sun King (Naxos 8.554003). Here is Volume 1 (one hopes of a series) of selections from the music for theatre that Purcell wrote, mostly towards the end of his life.
There are four pieces on a CD that lasts just under an hour with somewhat scanty liner-notes - but a first class recording of highly charged and melody-rich music played with great style and originality by Mallon’s forces.
Two changes stand out across the divide during which theatres in Britain were closed at Puritan insistence: women’s parts were taken by male actors; and the stages of Shakespeare’s day were mostly outdoor venues.
Indeed the later, Restoration, plays – and this music - took advantage of the new availability of women. This is fair, airy and upbeat music for the most part. And, although serious, not weighty.
By Purcell’s time theatres’ acoustics were more contained, more controllable and sufficiently different from those of the Elizabeth and Jacobean eras for some new effects to be common – and to be welcome. Playwrights to whose work the composer responded could experiment with effects, machinery, spectacle. Indeed, it was to this additional dimension that opera from Monteverdi’s time appealed as well.
These pieces (none is longer than 25 minutes) are not opera, nor really musical theatre. They’re music to accompany existing dramatic works… before the curtain, between acts and/or constitute choruses to underpin the action. So, although some of such works by Purcell were ‘converted’ into suites, the way we hear them on this CD is not as Purcell’s contemporaries would have heard them. And our response is likely to be very different from theirs… at the very least because we will hopefully pay much closer attention to the music than it seems likely did late seventeenth century audiences!
Still, this is fetching music played very much in the spirit of the occasion that must have inspired Purcell: listen to the changes in tempo during the longest piece, Amphytrion; this was for a drama by Dryden. It afforded Purcell opportunity for a series of French dances and some lyrical aria writing. It’s executed with real sensitivity by soprano Andrea Jeffrey; her diction and delivery are refreshingly delicate and give great pleasure. The same can be said of Giles Tomkins’s light but expressive bass, which seems ideally suited to this repertoire for the words are always clear and amply endowed with meaning – again without a degree of pathos, which might have been expected here. Indeed, if there is a small criticism of the style employed by the singers on this reasonably-priced CD in particular, it is that they take things perhaps just a tiny touch too seriously.
Mallon and his players effortlessly convey the hesitancy and faltering steps towards true love of shepherd and shepherdess without ‘playing up’ the convention yet without becoming so absorbed in tribulation that dramatic contrast is lost. Of equal interest are the Scottish hornpipe and jigs [trs.5, 10] in the piece.
The Aradia Ensemble enters just as fully into the spirit of the comedy by d’Urfey, Sir Barnaby Whigg, for which Purcell wrote only one number, a sea song and persuasive picture of a tempest – possibly accompanied by stage effects at the play’s performances in 1681 at Drury Lane.
Both the other pieces – like Amphytrion – come from later in Purcell’s career, the 1690s, when Purcell was literally working himself to death both for love of his work, and for money. For The Gordion Knot Unty’d (1691) Purcell contributed a set of instrumental airs and dances. The composer’s poignant yet unfussy melodic invention is well represented by The Aradia Ensemble’s attentive and sensitive musicians and singers. Circe (for a revival probably in 1690) of Charles (son of William) Davenant’s tragedy called out for magic, darkness and effects. In these Purcell is in his element.
This is music of Purcell’s maturity. The challenge faced by the performers is to recreate, or at least represent, the appropriateness to the conventions of late Restoration drama of Purcell’s evocative music. In this they succeed in large part, though a little more pace and lightness of touch in places might have been welcome. On the other hand there is a Lullian sobriety and deftness in numbers like the overture to The Gordion Knot Unty’d  [tr.13] which make this performance very compelling. It’s hard to see how Purcell would have disapproved.
The balance between vocal and instrumental pieces is nicely struck; there is a sense of occasion – albeit by proxy – and the momentum under the rather ‘rearranged’ circumstances is well kept. The recording is up to scratch, though not roomy.
There appears to be no existing recording of the song from Sir Barnaby Whigg. The more comprehensive set of six CDs by Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music on Decca 000321502) can seriously be considered for the other three pieces. But if you want a sampler of delightful and moving music exhibiting many of Purcell’s finer and most refined qualities, this is one to consider.
Mark Sealey


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