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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Dido and Aeneas - Opera in three acts (1689) [57:55]
Dido - Josephine Veasey (mezzo)
Belinda - Helen Donath (soprano)
Aeneas - John Shirley-Quirk (baritone)
Second Woman, First Witch - Delia Wallis (mezzo)
Sorceress - Elizabeth Bainbridge (mezzo)
Second Witch - Gillian Knight (soprano)
Spirit - Thomas Allen (baritone)
First Sailor - Frank Patterson (tenor)
Kenneth Heath (cello), Robin McGee (double-bass), John Constable (harpsichord and organ continuo)
John Alldis Choir; Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Sir Colin Davis
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, August 1970
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE 4428334
[57:55]
Experience Classicsonline


This 1970 recording of Dido and Aeneas by Colin Davis first appeared on Philips LP 6500131 and was first reissued on CD on Philips 4224852 in their Baroque Classics series. The booklet for that CD included the complete libretto, whereas in the present reissue you get just a synopsis.

You might be surprised that a recording of Dido using period instruments wasn’t made until 1979. You won’t be surprised that the last recording of Dido on modern instruments was made in 1985. But the modern orchestra isn’t really an issue here. The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields play stylishly. The opening section of the Overture has yearning and tension achieved through the transparency with which Davis conveys the part-writing. The fast section, with welcome light and shade, flitters around in nervous expectation. The opening chorus, ‘Banish sorrow, banish care’ (tr. 2 0:41) is equally finely balanced and at a tempo which achieves both flow and pointed concern, so the overall effect is one of humane courtliness. Throughout the orchestral and choral sections Davis shows an innate understanding of the pace and progression of the drama.

However, the items for solo voices and continuo are less successful. Keyboard player John Constable prepared the edition for this recording and the continuo players, separately listed above, are prominent from Belinda’s opening arioso ‘Shake the cloud from off your brow’ (tr. 2), both in balance and in the running commentary Constable’s harpsichord provides on virtually every phrase of the music; they threaten to become an alternative and conflicting focus of interest. That you can have equally imaginative but more satisfyingly discreet continuo is demonstrated perfectly by Thurston Dart in the 1961 Dido conducted by Anthony Lewis (Decca 4663872).

For Davis Helen Donath makes a fresh Belinda. Josephine Veasey with rich lower register is a majestic Dido, awesome enough but in such a constant epic mode it’s difficult to detect and feel sympathy for her as a suffering woman. Her opening aria, ‘Ah Belinda! I am prest with torment’ (tr. 3) is so scrupulously calculated in its measure and projection that the feeling seems contrived and the long, poignant melisma on ‘languish’ (2:09) is fragmented into two statements for ease of breathing. I compared Janet Baker’s Dido in the Lewis recording. She’s brighter and fresher in voice yet with an aching transparency. Her repeat of the opening statement is at first more melting, then continues more intensely. Her melisma on ‘languish’ is given its full measure yet its colouring is varied. Her three statements of ‘would not’ are first resolute, then imperious and finally more disquieted. In short Baker’s is a multi-dimensional account which makes Veasey’s seem relatively static in its richness of tone yet severity of manner.

The recitatives in Davis’s recording lack animation. Those in Act 1 for the Second Woman as noted in the 1689 libretto, ‘The greatest blessing Fate can give’ (tr. 3 4:17) and ‘What stubborn heart unmov’d could see’ (tr. 4 0:59) are here sung by Belinda as a continuation in both cases of her recitative. This is implied as permissible in the Purcell Society edition but arguably gives Belinda more prominence than Purcell intended and upsets the balance between Acts 1 and Act 2 Scene 1 of one principal, Dido in Act 1, the Sorceress in Act 2 Scene 1, and two attendants, Belinda and the Second Woman in Act 1, the First and Second Witch in Act 2 Scene 1. That balance is further disturbed by having the same singer, Delia Wallis, play both the Second Woman and First Witch, therefore having a foot in both camps, as it were.

The chorus ‘Fear no danger’ (tr. 4 2:56) attractively contrasts a forthright refrain with more gentle verses. John Shirley-Quirk (tr. 5) proves a virile if arguably over-projected Aeneas. You think of him as an adept politician rather than a sincere lover. The chorus ‘To the hills and the vales’ (2:53) opens with breadth and density yet Davis obtains a pleasing variety in the lighter pointing of its closing ‘Go revel, ye Cupids’. The following Triumphing Dance is also neatly pointed.

Act 2 begins with a determined Witches’ Prelude (tr. 6) made more spooky by brief use of chamber organ. Elizabeth Bainbridge brings a commandingly steely edge to the Sorceress spitting venom. The First and Second Witches’ duet, ‘But ’ere we this perform’ (tr. 7 3:25) has a precise, cold-blooded efficiency. The first Witches’ chorus, ‘Harm’s our delight’ (tr. 7 1:11) has a spiteful relish but the following ‘Ho, ho’ choruses, while celebrating Purcell’s counterpoint in stylishly light manner, are dramatically rather tame. The Echo Chorus (tr. 8), however, appears with suitably recessed echo sections and these are consistently maintained in the following Echo Dance of the Furies, a correct practice too many recordings ignore. Sadly, the thunder called for at the end is absent.

Act 2 Scene 2’s opening ritornello (tr. 9) is playfully treated but Helen Donath brings a sense of a rare, idyllic environment to Belinda’s ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’, a distinctiveness not without its own tension. This could also be said of Delia Wallis as the Second Woman in ‘Oft she visits this lone mountain’ (tr. 10) though this would have benefited from a little more momentum. There’s no shortage of that, on the other hand, in Belinda’s ‘Haste, haste to town’ (tr. 11 0:38) and its chorus repeat. The role of the false Spirit giving Aeneas his marching orders (tr. 12) is oddly given here to a baritone - a youthful yet authoritative Thomas Allen. The part is comfortably in mezzo range, its lowest note the E above middle C and only rising an octave. Nowadays it’s sung by counter-tenor, a voice more readily associated with the supernatural, but the tradition with regard to this particular work only dates from Mackerras’s 1967 recording. The Spirit is the Sorceress’s elf and is in the form of Mercury, so a treble voice would be most appropriate. This is how Britten cast the role in his 1959 broadcast (BBC Legends BBCB 8003-2). Anyway, whoever the messenger, John Shirley-Quirk’s response as Aeneas, at first resolute, then aching with sorrow, is eloquent.

All Act 3 Scene 1’s sailor music is trim and sturdy, whether dancing orchestra or breezy chorus. Frank Patterson is a light, personable First Sailor. The witches’ malevolence continues to be admirably efficient and their chorus is now more dramatic with a gleeful yet pacy ‘Destruction’s our delight’ (tr. 14 1:36) followed by a deliberate yet resilient Witches’ Dance.

Josephine Veasey’s Dido begins the final scene (tr. 15) remonstrating and in epic stance but you don’t feel any pathos. In their final meeting and duet Aeneas is sorrowful, Dido passionate and implacable. If you long for something a little more melting it can be heard in the chorus’s response, ‘Great minds against themselves conspire’ (4:27) after an heroic start. Dido’s Lament (tr. 17) is delivered free of vocal ornamentation but slowly, meditatively with sustained phrasing and therefore with growing intensity. Again in comparison Janet Baker, by greater dynamic contrast in the repeated material, more affectingly reveals Dido the woman as well as the queen. Her cries of ‘Remember me’ are more haunting. Though Veasey’s are heartfelt they remain commands. Baker conveys them also as pleas. On the other hand, where Veasey does provide a moving touch of pathos is in the fading away of the voice, like Dido’s life, at her final ‘but ah! forget my fate’ (2:52).

What is enchanting is Davis’s treatment of the final chorus, ‘With drooping wings ye Cupids come’ (tr. 18), heard unaccompanied. The effect is like a sanctified prayer lovingly shaped. This is then repeated by instruments alone, tenderly and beautifully balanced, with not a touch of harpsichord within earshot.

You’ll have gathered that I have mixed feelings about this Dido. The recording is clean in focus and firm in bass. Overall the interpretation is of a high standard, especially the John Alldis Choir and John Shirley-Quirk’s Aeneas. But the particular feature of this 1970 recording, that it cast Josephine Veasey as Dido again to follow her triumph in the role in Berlioz’s Les Troyens in Davis’s 1969 recording, does not guarantee a complete success. At least not in comparison with Janet Baker’s unforgettable Dido. And John Constable’s chatterbox harpsichord soon palls.

Australian Eloquence CDs usually have more generous total playing times than the present 57:55. The problem is that this is the only Purcell Davis has ever recorded. That said, an opportunity was missed to give First Sailor Frank Patterson more representation with some tracks from SAL3717, his Philips LP of Purcell songs issued in 1969.

Michael Greenhalgh

 


 


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