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Emma Kirkby: The Complete Recitals
rec. 1978-97
DECCA L’OISEAU-LYRE 4787863 [12 CDs]

Along with the call for an authentic performance style for instrumentalists and ensembles in the 1960s and 1970s came that for an authentic singing style. Although the latter was harder to define than instrumental music, attempts were made to turn back the clock and produce a sound the likes of which would have been heard in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The likes of Alfred Deller played a significant role in the redevelopment of this kind of singing. It was in the 1970s with the work of the likes of Anthony Rooley and Christopher Hogwood that this developed into the sound that would shape historically informed performance as we now know it. Its hallmarks are a lighter touch and voices less reliant on the use of vibrato and less informed by the operatic styles of the 19th and 20th centuries. Out of this movement came the “uncommonly pure, crystalline voice” (The Grove Book of Opera Singers) of Emma Kirkby.

Emma Kirkby did not intend to become a professional singer. After studying Classics at Oxford, where she sang with Schola Cantorum, she became a school teacher but continued singing for pleasure. In 1973 she was a founder member, along with her then husband, Andrew Parrott, of The Taverner Choir, Consort and Players. She also began her long association with The Consort of Musicke. A little later she also formed a fruitful relationship with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. It is the relationships between Emma Kirkby and Anthony Rooley as well as that with Christopher Hogwood that this box set celebrates ... and what musical joys we have here. Some of the twelve discs featured have been present in my collection for a long time whilst others I had on vinyl and so I am all the happier to have them now on CD.

The first disc in the set, The Lady Musick, is one I had on LP and had not heard for some years. My fond memories of Kirkby’s crystal-clear diction over the expert lute playing of Rooley, I am glad to say did not prove false. Their performance, especially in the Dowland and Campion, is excellent, and listening to it again is such a pleasure that I wonder why it has taken me so long to replace it with a CD.

The next two discs could be described as being linked. The Pastoral Dialogues and the Amorous Dialogues offer duets in which Kirkby's clear soprano voice is very finely balanced against David Thomas’s bass or Martyn Hill’s tenor. There are some wonderful examples of music-making on both discs, with the William Lawes and the Sigismond D’India being the stand-out tracks on the ‘Pastoral’ disc. Lawes’ elder brother Henry fares well on the ‘Amorous’ disc, although they save the best until last. It is in Monteverdi’s Bel pastor, dal cui bel guardo from his Madrigali e canzonetti a tre voce, Libro IX where the performers really shine.

The fourth CD offers the listener quite a diverse collection of chamber duets from the seventeenth century. Here Kirkby is joined by the equally excellent Judith Nelson and The Consort of Musicke. Nelson, whilst not possessing as distinctive a voice as that of Kirkby, is in excellent form and proves a wonderful partner. I have always regarded her as a performer who does not get the credit she deserves, and it is in performances such as these that she is at her very best. This is a disc of well articulated singing and fine ensemble work. A real winner.

Disc five is a real stand-out, offering 16 songs and airs by Henry Purcell. I originally had this on LP which I soon replaced with CD, I have a very high regard for this recording. It has given me and will continue to give me many hours of enjoyment. Here Kirkby’s voice is pitted against an instrumental ensemble which includes, for the first time in this set, Christopher Hogwood on keyboards. This well balanced production allows the voice and all the instruments to blossom and shine.

Discs 6 and 7 present J.S. Bach’s most popular secular cantatas BWV 202, 210-212, along with a few arias. Here Kirkby is joined by David Thomas and Rogers Covey-Crump, a well balanced trio, with the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood. These recordings still sound as fresh as they did when they were first released. Nearly ten years elapsed between these recordings and whilst Kirkby’s voice has matured a little it still retains the clarity and distinctiveness of the earlier recording. The Academy however sound richer and more developed. Hogwood was always one for developing the sound of his ensembles, with the unnamed oboeist in BWV 202 deserving special mention. These recordings, but especially the disc containing the ‘Coffee’ and ‘Peasant’ Cantatas, have been firm favourites of mine since I first heard them and listening to them here I imagine they always will.

I am going to start my discussion of discs 8-10 by stating that I have never been a fan of the vocal music of Handel. All those endless recitatives tend to leave me cold, so these discs have passed me by. However, disc 8 is a disc of arias, not just by Handel, but also by Lampe and Arne, as well as orchestral music. It is quite a delight. The Lampe proved something of a surprise. Why I have not heard of him before. The Arne is wonderful and I must admit that I quite enjoyed the Handel arias too. Emma Kirkby makes the vocal line sparkle whilst the Academy of Ancient Music are on excellent form. Disc 9 presents four of Handel’s Italian Cantatas, some of which I know, if not in these recordings. I prefer these versions to those from Catherine Bott (CHAN 0620), with Kirkby’s voice winning through. Disc 10 not only offers the listener two further Italian Cantatas but you also get three duets and one trio. Here Kirkby shares the limelight with the excellent Judith Nelson and David Thomas. These three discs, in which Emma Kirkby shows true understanding of the music if not curing my aversion to Handel’s vocal music certainly go part way. Disc 10 also includes ‘Bonus tracks’: an aria from La Resurrezione, the excerpts from the Hogwood’s famous recording of Messiah along with extracts from his English language version of Haydn’s Creation.

The final two CDs offer music I feel more at home with: that of Mozart, with Disc 11 offering religious music whilst Disc 12 gives us operatic and concert arias. Kirkby’s recording of Exsultate, jubilate has long been a favourite of mine. I remember buying it when it was new and have enjoyed it ever since. The accompanying motets only serve to show what a thoughtful and skilful interpreter of this music Kirkby and Hogwood are. The final volume of arias brings together music from Il rè pastore, Zaide, Idomeneo along with three concert arias; what a joy it is. Here Kirkby and Hogwood cleverly chose arias which suit her voice so none of the usual Mozart arias from the great Da Ponte masterpieces are there. This makes for a refreshing programme in which unusual repertoire is matched with the kind of voice which makes the music really shine. It's all beautifully sung by Kirkby as well as played by the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood. An excellent final disc.

All the performances, by all concerned, are excellent throughout this boxed set. The recorded sound, which was regarded as cutting-edge at the time, still sounds bright and sharp. My only quibbles with this set are firstly one of title. The Complete Recitals — I am sure we can all think of recordings that Emma Kirkby made for L’Oiseau-Lyre that would have fitted in to this category but which have been omitted here. Secondly, and more important, is the lack of notes. A brief biography is just not good enough. Yes the complete sung texts and translations have been made available online but what about the music itself. Some semblance of musical context would have been nice. Surely, since the texts have been lifted from the original recordings and put online Decca could have done the same with the notes. It's a real shame that they didn’t, especially when the rest of the production values of this box are so good.

Stuart Sillitoe

For full track details see the Decca page

CD list
CD 1: The Lady Musick

CD 2: Pastoral Dialogues

CD 3: Amorous Dialogues

CD 4: Duetti da Camera

CD 5: Purcell: Songs & Arias

CD 6: Bach, J.S: Coffee Cantata; Peasant Cantata

CD 7: Bach, J.S.: Wedding Cantatas

CD 8: Handel, Arne Arias

CD 9: Handel: Italian Cantatas

CD 10: Handel: Cantatas

CD 11: Mozart: Exsultate Jubilate; Motets

CD 12: Mozart Arias


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