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England, My England: The Story of Henry Purcell
DVD
Simon Callow (Charles II); Michael Ball (Henry Purcell); Nina Young (Mrs Purcell); Rebecca Front (Queen Mary); Corin Redgrave (William III); Lucy Speed (Nell); Letittia Dean (Barbara); John Shrapnel (Pepys); Robert Stephen (Dryden); Murray Melvin (Shaftesbury); John Fortune (Clarendon); Bill Kenwright (Bill)
rec. 1995 for Channel 4 Television.
Picture Format NTSC 16:9; Region Code 2, 3, 4 and 5. Linear-PCM Stereo.
Subtitles in English, German, Spanish and Italian.
CD
Music from the original soundtrack
see end of review for track listing and soloists
Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. Air Studios, London, 2-7 January 1995. DDD
NVC ARTS 5051865 513322 [DVD: 153:00 + CD: 76:04]

Experience Classicsonline


Don’t confuse this package with the super-budget 2-CD set of the same title recorded by King’s College, Cambridge, which John France recently recommended as great value; that set includes some Purcell, but also spreads its net much more widely.

I imagine that there will be two categories of potential purchasers for this DVD/CD combination: those who know Purcell’s music quite well or very well but who wish to see the film, and those who regard it as a sampler and, it is to be hoped, a springboard for exploring the music further. In fact, the DVD and CD appear to be available separately, but each at a price not much less than that of the combined package.

I missed the Channel 4 programme when it was broadcast in 1995 to celebrate the tercentenary of Purcell’s death, so I was pleased when Warner reissued it to celebrate the 350th anniversary of his death. In the event, I really don’t know what to make of it. The lack of biographical information led Tony Palmer to concentrate on the events which formed the backdrop to Purcell’s life. So far so good - a very reasonable decision and the chapter headings look very promising, with titles such as ‘Restoration’, ‘Plague’, ‘Fire of London’, etc. - but I found the actual film somewhat tedious: too clever for its own good, despite the disclaimer in Michael White’s booklet of “the considerable temptation to be clever”.

The events of the seventeenth century are framed by the vicissitudes of a modern theatrical company putting on a play about Charles II, so that one moment we see Simon Callow as the actor, wrapped in a red blanket, and the next moment as Charles himself in a red robe striding down the corridors of power. I found it all too much of an effort to keep up, for all the excellence of the acting of Simon Callow and of Michael Ball as Purcell.

I know that others have reacted much more favourably - you may be one of them. If so, provided that you keep your wits about you as you watch, you will learn something of what it was like for the young Purcell to be a chorister at the Chapel Royal under the tutelage of Pelham Humfrey, of life at the court of Charles II, of the religious divisions which led to the flight of James II, the ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688 which ushered in William and Mary, the death of Mary and the influence of Purcell on succeeding composers, especially Benjamin Britten.

As the booklet rightly points out, those events shaped Purcell’s music. Had he been born around 1640, for example, he would have grown up in an England devoid of formal music - no church music, masques, only small-scale private performances. The Chapel Royal would have been disbanded until the restoration of Charles II. As it was, the institution was getting firmly back on its feet when Purcell became a chorister there. The statement in the booklet that “he felt the impact of ... [such things as] the end of the Commonwealth, the restoration of the monarchy ... very deeply” is a little illogical, since Purcell was a babe-in-arms when they happened, but they did open the way to the career which he followed.

The music for the film was chosen in consultation with John Eliot Gardiner and performed by him with his Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, with distinguished soloists in several of the items. The extracts from that soundtrack on the CD, though in no way constituting a kind of ‘Best of Purcell’, serve very well to illustrate important aspects of his music. Though Gardiner has made a number of distinguished Purcell recordings for the Erato label, now part of the Warner empire, I understand that the music on the CD was not excerpted from those Erato recordings, but was made specially for the film.

As one might expect, the performances on the CD are all of high quality. I have one or two minor quibbles - Jennifer Smith sounds too nice and unwitch-like in Saul and the Witch of Endor, for example, but I’m glad that this little masterpiece of dramatic scena was included here, since it’s too often overlooked.

The excerpts from the Birthday Song for Queen Mary and those from the music for her funeral not only neatly frame the reign of that monarch, reminding us of Purcell’s involvement in affairs of state, but they also exemplify his two greatest musical contributions: the Odes and Welcome Songs and Church Music. I very much hope that Purcell novices will be sufficiently attracted by these excerpts to explore both further.

Similarly, I hope that the brief rondeau from Abdelazer will not only point the link forward to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide, but that listeners may try the whole suite from which it comes and some of the other theatrical music. Most of all, I should like to think that the excerpts from King Arthur which close the CD, especially the extended Frost Scene, with its pre-echo of Vivaldi’s Winter, would lead potential listeners to that wonderful but under-rated work.

A good start for further exploration might be another Warner CD, the very inexpensive Henry Purcell: A Musical Celebration, with distinguished contributions from John Eliot Gardiner and Raymond Leppard (4509 96373 2, around £4); indeed, unless you must have the DVD, this might be a better first buy than England, My England. Gardiner’s Come, ye sons of Art away and the music for Queen Mary’s funeral are included on an inexpensive and attractive Warner Apex CD (0927 48693 2 - see review) and King Arthur is available on a mid-price 2-CD set, 4509 96552 2, with highlights on budget-price Warner Apex 2564 61501 2.

For Dido and Æneas there is an embarrassment of choice in all price ranges, but my chief selection must be the new Chandos version with Sarah Connolly (CHAN0757) which I had as Download of the Month in my February, 2009, Download Roundup.

I said that the Odes and Welcome Songs reflect Purcell’s involvement in matters of state; if you turn to the complete set under the direction of Robert King on Hyperion, you will see that they span the reigns of Charles II, James II, for whom, both as Duke of York and as king, Purcell also wrote odes, and William and Mary. I recently gave a strong recommendation to that set, available at a special budget price (CDS44031/8, 8 CDs) and to the even larger collection, again from the King’s Consort, of the complete Church Music (CDS44141/51, 11CDs at budget price). For more details of these and for other fine Purcell recordings, I direct you to those reviews, here and here.

If eight CDs of Odes and eleven of Church Music sounds too much, you may prefer another Warner/Gardiner combination: four CDs, two of the Odes and Songs and two of Anthems and Sacred Songs, on 2564 69140 7, at around £20, which Simon Thompson recently commended as a successful set and a reliable bargain.

I hope that you find the DVD more instructive and enjoyable than I did, that you warm to the CD as much as I did and that together they lead you to explore Purcell further. His anniversary year is almost ended, but the appeal of his music is endless.

Brian Wilson 

Track listing & soloists
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Sonata for trumpet and strings in D1 [4:09]
The Married Beau Overture [2:39]
Birthday Song for Queen Mary, 1694, No.2 Come ye sons of art2 [1:53]
No.3 Sound the trumpet (plus Chorus repeat: ‘Come ye sons of art’)2 [3:41]
Saul and the Witch of Endor (‘In guilty night’)3 [10:16]
The Indian Queen : Adagio [1:40]
King Arthur : Fairest Isle4 [3:27]
Upon a quiet conscience (‘Close thine eyes and sleep secure’) [3:50]
Dido & Aeneas
Dido’s lament (‘Thy hand, Belinda’ - ‘When I am laid in earth’)5 [4:44]
Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary
March [1:25]
‘Man that is born of a woman’ [3:25]
Canzona [2:04]
‘In the midst of life we are in death’ (plus Canzona repeat) [6:22]
‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts’ (plus March repeat) [3:32]
Abdelazer: Rondeau [1:31]
King Arthur7
Act I: [18] ‘Come if you dare’6 [3:54]
Act III: Prelude [0:25]
‘What ho! thou genius of this isle’ [0:54]
‘What power art thou’ [2:57]
‘Thou doting fool’ [0:54]
‘Great love, I know thee now’ [0:43]
‘No part of my dominion’ [0:59]
Prelude [0:50]
‘See, see, we assemble’ [2:13]
‘Tis love that has warm’d us’ [2:03]
‘Sound a parley’ [3:55]
Third Act Tune: Hornpipe [0:50]
David Blackadder (trumpet)1; Michael Chance, James Bowman (counter-tenors)2; Jennifer Smith (soprano); Paul Agnew (tenor); David Thomas (bass)3; Lynne Dawson (soprano); Peter Harvey (baritone)4; Susan Graham (mezzo)5; Paul Agnew (tenor)6; Nancy Argenta (soprano); Stephen Varcoe (baritone)7

 


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