Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695)
Dido and Aeneas (1683) [58.17]
Dido - Della Jones (mezzo)
Aeneas - Peter Harvey (baritone)
Belinda - Donna Dean (soprano)
Sorceress - Susan Bickley (mezzo)
1st Witch - Nicola Jenkin (soprano)
2nd Witch - Melanie Marshall (mezzo)
2nd Woman, Spirit - Caroline Ashton (soprano)
Sailor - Andrew Murgatroyd (tenor)
St. James's Singers
St. James's Baroque Players/Ivor Bolton
rec. Petersham Church, Richmond, June-July 1989
DAS ALTE WERK 2564 69856-9 [58.17] 

Della Jones has such a richly vibrant voice that you would expect her recording of Dido and Aeneas to be a big and highly theatrical affair. In fact this 1989 recording is surprisingly small-scale and makes a virtue of its highly musical values. Conductor Ivor Bolton uses a diminutive group of strings, just one to a part with the addition of archlute, theorbo, baroque guitar and two harpsichords. The chorus is to a similar scale with just twelve singers including Jonathan Peter Kenny and Christopher Purves. In keeping with these qualities the 1st and 2nd witch, 2nd woman, spirit and sailor are all sung by members of the chorus.

Though Bruce Wood’s and Andrew Pinnock's article in the booklet talks about the possible links the work may have had with court performances, their account of it is firmly rooted in the world of Josiah Priest's school; the minimalist approach is surely one that Priest would have recognised.

Jones's Dido is grand, rich and serious, but she is never too grand for the music. She never makes the mistake of thinking she is singing Berlioz, but she is musically serious of purpose and sombre, making much of the little dramatic strokes which Purcell gives to the character. That said, there are a couple of moments when you feel that she almost breaks out of the limits the performance places on her. Her account of When I am laid in earth is perfectly judged and not a little moving.

Peter Harvey is a fine, upstanding, entirely un-wimpish Aeneas. He makes much of what little Purcell and Tate give him in the role. Not for the first time I am reminded by a comment from a previous Aeneas that the role only made sense when played in a period performance. He understood how much the dance brought to the role. Josiah Priest was after all a dancing master. In fact, if the piece did receive its first performance at court, then Aeneas may have been played by a talented amateur or an actor rather than a professional singer.

Harvey and Jones make a strong pair and theirs is very much a personal drama, played out on a very public stage.

Donna Dean is a supportive Belinda, providing a neat account of her music, accompanying the principals and never upstaging them.

Susan Bickley plays the sorceress straight - thankfully no funny voices here. I have lost count of the number of recordings of this work that I have had to discount because the sorceress is either played by a man or by a woman singing in an annoyingly 'nasty' voice. Here Bickley relies on characterisation and her superb diction to get the character across.

In fact, the diction of the whole cast is exemplary. If I did not know the libretto well, I would have been able to understand it easily without recourse to the full text printed in the booklet.

The smaller roles are adequately taken but there seemed to be occasional moments of slight uncertainty. The chorus are entirely admirable. And the orchestra never feels too small or sounds too thin. They accompany beautifully and create a carefully crafted sound which is just right.

The edition used adds a couple of improvised guitar pieces to fill in the 'missing' music from the libretto. This works quite well when the piece is performed in the theatre, but on disc these moments feel something of a let-down.

This is a good, solidly intelligent and musical account of Purcell's opera; one which I wholeheartedly endorse. You might want other, starrier accounts of the title role in your library, but this disc will not disappoint.

Robert Hugill