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William BOYCE (1711-1779)
David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan (Dublin version, 1744*, and extracts from the London version, 1736) [58.01]
Ode on St Cecilia’s Day [21.57]
Patrick Burrowes (treble), William Purefoy (alto), Andrew Watts* (counter-tenor), Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenor), Michael George (bass)
Choir of New College Oxford, Hanover Band/Graham Lea-Cox
rec. The Old Market, Hove, 28 May to 3 June 1999
ASV GAUDEAMUS PRESTO CD CDGAU208 [79.58]

The generally accepted view is that from the death of Purcell to the emergence of Parry and Stanford towards the end of the Victorian era the British produced no composers of any great merit, so much so that England was contemptuously dubbed “the land without music”. While it is true that the British composers of the nineteenth century were almost uniformly pale imitations of their continental cousins, the eighteenth century was far less of the barren wasteland than rumour would have us believe. Composers such as Arne were fully the equal of the general run of their European contemporaries; and while geniuses of the stature of Bach, Handel and Haydn were lacking, British figures such as Boyce were worthy of comparison with the second rung of composers on the continent such as Graun, Johann Christian Bach, Stamitz and Dittersdorf. The problem lay with the fact that British composers were not able to rely, as the continental rivals did, on substantial royal patronage from the Handel-worshipping Hanoverian dynasty. Furthermore British composers with the social disadvantage that the fashion-conscious aristocracy and middle classes preferred ostentatiously to import creative talent from overseas rather than to employ those of a humbler background nearer to home. In other words, the British class system was in full swing.

Boyce was rather more fortunate than most, in that his music was early taken up by the ‘Apollo Academy’, an organisation that met in a London public house and sponsored performances during the 1730s and 1740s. Their repertory was inevitably restricted to relatively small-scale works, but David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan was nonetheless described as an ‘oratorio’ and was subsequently taken up for performances in Windsor and Dublin. It predates Handel’s much larger-scale oratorio Saul written some eight years later. The latter was premièred in the same year as Boyce’s Dublin revival of his work, which was then subjected to some revision in the time-honoured eighteenth century fashion. We are here given the text of the Dublin version, with three extracts from the original London score as a supplement. It is less clear when the Ode on St Cecilia’s Day was written, but the informative booklet note by Robert Bruce speculates that it may have been in 1737 or 1738. For this recording the latter score has been edited to add timpani in accordance with eighteenth century performance practice. Conductor Graham Lea-Cox provides a further booklet note to explain this and other textual matters. All these notes are given not only in English but also in French and German translation. The sung texts are supplied in English only — including some lines by John Lockman which Boyce omitted in his musical setting of the Lament.

There is no doubt that the decision to record Boyce’s Dublin revision was the correct one. With presumably a larger performance area at his disposal, the composer recast several of the original secco recitatives (with continuo accompaniment only) as accompagnato with full strings. The wider dramatic range which this affords is pure gain. Indeed there is a greater proportion of accompanied as opposed to dry recitative here than one would find in any Handel opera or oratorio. In his note Graham Lea-Cox observes that the writing draws on the new Italianate opera of the period in the generation succeeding Handel. The music gains a real dramatic impetus in David’s outburst of rage on learning of the death of Jonathan. The original Biblical material furnishes plenty of opportunity for such engagement, although it comes as something of a shock to encounter an alteration of the famous line such as “How are (rather than art) the Mighty fallen”. Boyce does not allocate specific voices to individual roles, but the overall effect is closer to Gluck than to Handel; Lea-Cox also draws a parallel with Pergolesi, a similarly young composer.

The Ode is a rather more conventional piece, which as Lea-Cox observes demonstrates signs of having been written in some haste. It is nonetheless an engaging score with some delightful touches. The poem, without Biblical models to fall back on, is a pretty risible piece of sub-Popery written by the “Reverend Mister Vidal”, which contains some howlers such as “By Music elate, nor fearing to die” and other pieces of tosh. The singing throughout is excellent, and the period band are nicely characterful and well recorded. Presto in their re-mastering have commendably reproduced the full content of the original booklet. There are no other recordings of either of these works listed in the current catalogue, so this reissue is both valuable and self-recommending to anyone who wishes to explore the realm of English eighteenth century music outside the sphere of Handel.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



 

 




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