Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Harpsichord Suites and other works
Olivier Baumont (harpsichord/virginal)
see below for track-listing
rec. no details given
ERATO 2564 68655-6 [63.51]

Writing just as the 350th anniversary year of Purcell’s birth has faltered to its end this recording of a large portion of the master’s keyboard music serves as a reminder of his greatness in an area which has been somewhat overlooked in favour of the vocal works. Warner originally produced this disc in 1995. It has been re-issued now as part of the Purcell jamboree but, rather hopelessly, without any booklet notes - presumably to keep the price down.

I am still the proud possessor of the L’Oiseau Lyre LP originally recorded in 1953 of the Suites only, as recorded by the Swiss harpsichordist who died in 1976, Isabelle Nef. She was the first to record all eight, and I have an almost equally aged edition of the music edited by Richard Aldrich in the Early Keyboard Music series published by Kalmus. That edition is replete with curious dynamics, phrasings and even pedal markings. I would love to know, as I have often remarked on these pages, which edition is used here by Baumont but we are not informed.

The Suites and other keyboard works were published posthumously by Mrs. Purcell in 1696 in ‘A Choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord and Spinnet’. It was Nef who was almost the first to rescue the suites from oblivion using a harpsichord. In many ways I still admire and enjoy what she did. For example, unlike Nef, Baumont in the facile 1st Suite takes the fourth movement, a Minuet, at such a pace that its grace and ease are quite lost. My printed edition of the 2nd Suite which here ends with a Sarabande also includes a Chaconne and Sicilliano movements which never feature in the other suites. The 5th Suite, recorded here, ends, curiously with a Jig substituted from Blow and Purcell’s collection ‘Musick’s Handmaid’ of 1687.

The pattern is of a three (in Suite 3), four (in Suites 1 and 2 for example) or five movement suite (as in No 5). The CD has kept them a suitable distance apart by interposing other dances and ayres, and grounds. The dances tend to be preceded by a fleet-fingered Prelude, some pre-figuring Handel, as in Suite No 5, then an Almand. Later there could be a Hornpipe (as in the last three suites) certainly a Courante and possibly a Saraband. The 2nd Suite is compositionally streets in advance of the 1st and has a very French touch with its dotted rhythms and un-English melodic lines. Baumont quite rightly, often employs ‘notes-inégales’ even when three or four equal quavers/semi-quavers are indicated in the score. After all it had been just a few years before that Pelham Humphrey (1647-1674) had returned from France full of the ‘new-fangled’ musical fashions much enjoyed by the court.

The Grounds which Purcell especially favoured in all genres of composition are really sets of variations upon a repeated bass pattern. The Right-hand can often become quite syncopated. It is this rhythmic flexibility which can often surprise students of these pieces and this ‘jazzy’ mood is especially audible in the Courant from the 3rd and 6th Suites as well as in the opening track ‘A New Ground’. The ‘Round-O’ piece is from the Incidental music composed in 1695 for a revival of Aphra Behn’s play ‘Abdenelnazar’ and is usually known as a Hornpipe being the melody used by Britten as the theme for his ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’.

The differences between past and present harpsichordists are well exemplified by the 4th Suite. If I may use Nef as an example, there are the ‘notes-inégales’ which Nef never employs. The Preludes in her hands are rigid in tempo with none of Baumont’s rubato. His tempi are in general faster as in the Courante movement but in the Sarabande she, being much slower is more sensitive, delicate and changes the registration beautifully. The only other version I have heard is by Kenneth Gilbert on Harmonia Mundi (1994) but his tempo can be even more breathless.

Baumont uses a Jacob Kirckman harpsichord for the suites which was made in London in 1752 which has an especially strong bass but seems to have no or little tonal variety and a Virginal of 1664 made by Robert Hatley. In fact the disc does not start well, unless my ears deceive me as the opening track mentioned above finds this instrument somewhat compromised in its tuning. After that, things settle down. The instruments are from the Benton Early keyboard collection at Fenton House a National Trust property.

This then is a very useful collection, serviceable and recorded in a forward and realistic acoustic. The music is neatly played and the disc has a fairly generous playing time.

Gary Higginson 

1 A New Ground [2.14]
2-5 Suite No. 1 [2.54]
6. A New Scotch Tune [1.01]
7. A New Irish Tune [0.52]
8-11 Suite No. 2 [7.14]
12. Ground in Gamut [1.28]
13-15. Suite No. 3 [5.20]
16. Air [1.11]
17. Hornpipe {0.51]
18-21. Suite No 4 [5.38]
22. Ground [3.02]
23-27. Suite No. 5 [6.09]
28. March [1.00]
29. Minuet [1.05]
30-32. Suite No 6 [4.29]
33. Ground [1.52]
34-37. Suite No. 7 [6.17]
38. Air [1.32]
39. Round-O [1.17]
40-43. Suite No. 8 [5.39]
44. Sefauchi’s Farewell [2.22]