The history of English opera - or rather the lack of it - is one of the
most notable aspects of the country's musical history. In the course
of the 17th century opera became an increasingly important genre in Italy
and its style disseminated far and wide. At the Imperial court in Vienna
only Italian operas were performed, and further north operas were written
which were modelled after the Italian opera, although mostly in the
vernacular. France established its own operatic tradition, ironally through
the activities of an Italian, Giovanni Battista Lulli, better known as Jean
Musical developments in England differed from those on the Continent in
various ways: music for viol consort was in vogue much longer than
elsewhere, the recorder remained one of the most popular instruments long
after it had become obsolete elsewhere and it was only in the second decade
of the 18th century that the Italian opera was embraced by English
audiences. It was exactly that which brought attempts to establish an
English operatic tradition to a standstill. A survey of what happened on the
English music stage in the late 17th century is told in the liner-notes to
the present recording of The Judgment of Paris
by Daniel Purcell,
one of four settings of a libretto by the playwright William Congreve.
These settings were the outcome of a contest announced in March 1700. Four
composers took up the challenge to write the music to Congreve's
libretto: Daniel Purcell, John Weldon, John Eccles and Godfrey Finger. In
the spring of 1701 all four works were performed separately, and then in
June they were presented together. The outcome was probably surprising:
Weldon was given first prize, Eccles came second, Purcell third and Finger
was rated fourth. The latter was quite annoyed, and shortly thereafter left
England never to return. He might have been disappointed by coming last but
he didn't claim that his setting was the best: "Mr.
Purcell's Musick was the best", he stated according to a letter
of a contemporary.
Considering the historical importance of this contest it is quite
surprising that it has taken so long for the various versions of The
Judgment of Paris
to have been recorded. It was only in 2009 that
Chandos released a recording of Eccles' version. This was directed by
Christian Curnyn (review
) which is followed now by Daniel Purcell's
setting. The latter is a remarkably good piece which makes the lack of any
previous recording all the more surprising.
It is not known with absolute certainty how Daniel and Henry Purcell were
related. It is mostly assumed that Daniel was Henry's younger brother
but some scholars believe that he was his cousin. Whatever the truth may be,
they must have been pretty close as Daniel completed Henry's
semi-opera The Indian Queen
after the latter's death in
1695. Although educated as an organist and acting as keyboard teacher for
many years the largest part of Daniel's compositional output
comprises music for the stage. This opera is certainly reminiscent of the
semi-operas as written by Henry, and more generally the music for the
theatre of the 17th century, with its mixture of spoken text and music.
However, it shows a strong influence of Italian opera, especially in the
arias which are technically demanding and include a considerable amount of
coloratura. It is very different from the setting by Eccles which is of a
more pastoral character.
Daniel creates clear contrasts between the various characters by means of
different instrumental scorings. The strongest contrast is between Venus,
the goddess of love, and Pallas, the goddess of war. The former is
accompanied by recorders whereas in the arias of the second a trumpet is
involved, often together with timpani, especially in the instrumental
symphonies. In the performance this contrast is underlined by the casting:
Amy Freston has a strong voice with some sharp edges, whereas Anna
Dennis's voice is much sweeter, perfectly matching the sound of the
recorders. It is probably less easy to tell Ms Freston and Ciara Hendrick
apart; the latter is a mezzo, but in character they are not that different.
Samuel Boden sings the role of Paris, the shepherd who must decide which of
the three goddesses is the most beautiful. This part has a rather high
range; it suggests an hautecontre
as we know it from French music.
Boden masters his part very well and has no problems with the top notes.
Ashley Riches is Mercury, the messenger of the gods who introduces the
story, but doesn't participate in the ensuing course of events. There
are several choruses which - in the tradition of English theatrical music -
repeat the last words of one of the protagonists, largely to the same music.
Julian Perkins believes that Purcell made a mistake by including the first
chorus too late. He has 'corrected' this, so to speak, by
composing a chorus following the duet by Mercury and Paris, 'Happy
thou of Human Race' (No. 9). He defends this by stating that
performing pasticcios were very much part of the semi-opera tradition.
I am generally quite happy with this performance. My main problem is the
fact that most singers use a little too much vibrato, although it is mostly
not very wide. Its most damaging effect comes in the trio of the goddesses,
'Hither turn to me again' (No. 14) where the voices
don't blend all that well. Although regrettable that aspect has
hardly spoiled my enjoyment. The five singers deliver such good
interpretations of their respective roles and deal with the coloratura so
well. Among the highlights are 'Hither turn thee gentle Swain'
(Venus, No. 14) and 'Awake, awake, thy spirits raise' (Pallas,
No. 20). In 'Gentle Shepherd' (No. 29) Venus is accompanied by
a harp. I don't know whether this is indicated in the score; it was a
brilliant decision anyway as the result is an exquisite piece of music.
The historical importance of the contest of 1700 and the quality of
Purcell's music are reasons enough to justify this recording. As
Finger's setting has been lost, that leaves John Weldon's. I
searched the internet and learned that it was once recorded for BBC Radio 3
by The Consort of Musicke but it seems that it never made it to CD. I
haven't found any other recordings. A good recording would be welcome
to complete the picture of an interesting aspect of English music history.
For the time being let us enjoy this disc the importance and musical
qualities of which justify it as a Recording of the Month.
Johan van Veen