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Sweeter Than Roses
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Sweeter than Roses, Z.585/1 [3:34]
Cupid, the slyest rogue alive, Z.367 [2:39]
On the brow of Richmond Hill, Z.405 [1:40]
She loves and she confesses too, Z.413 [2:25]
Henry LAWES (1596-1662)
No Reprieve [4:20]
A Lover’s Legacy [1:47]
Francesco CORBETTA (1615-1681)
Suite in C major for guitar [6:16]
Urge me no more, Z.426 [3:47]
In the black, dismal dungeons of despair, Z.190 [4:18]
Now that the sun hath veil’d his light (An Evening Hymn), Z.193 [4:19]
Giovanni Battista DRAGHI (1640-1708)
Suite in E minor for harpsichord [11:53]
Love arms himself in Celia’s eyes, Z.392 [3:05]
Celia’s fond, too long I’ve loved her, Z.364 [2:36
I came, I saw, and was undone, (The Thraldom) Z.375 [4:15]
Oh! fair Cedaria, hide those eyes, Z.402 [4:13]
How blest are shepherds (from King Arthur, Z.628) [6:14]
Anna Dennis (soprano)
Sounds Baroque
rec. 2018, Trafalgar Park, Salisbury, UK
Sung texts included.
RESONUS RES10235 [67:33]

Fittingly, Henry Purcell gets the major billing here, but the CD is made especially interesting by the presence alongside Purcell’s music of works by composers who influenced him, or who were contemporaries of his in Restoration London.

The female voice which did most to familiarize me with many of the songs of Purcell was that of Emma Kirkby. By chance, Ms Kirkby and I were contemporaries as undergraduates at the same university (she was reading Classics, I was reading English), so I heard her voice at a very early stage of its development. In the years that followed, as Emma Kirkby’s career began to flourish, I came to identify her light and agile voice with one area of Purcell’s music. So much so, that it influenced my tastes in this area a great deal – and I long felt most comfortable in this repertoire with Kirkby herself and with singers who had a broadly similar approach, such as Nancy Argenta, Elin Manahan Thomas and Carolyn Sampson. Anna Dennis is a rather different kind of soprano and even now, I confess, it took me a little while to appreciate what a good interpreter of Purcell she is.

My early (and lasting) delight in the Emma Kirkby mode of singing Purcell probably owed quite a lot to my initial attraction to what Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his remarkable poem ‘Henry Purcell’ called Purcell’s “air of angels”. For the (very real) angelic dimension of Purcell’s music Kirkby was the perfect interpreter, with her more or less vibrato-free singing, her purity of tone and her perceptive attention to the verbal text. But, of course, there are other more human (one might say ‘earthy’) dimensions to Purcell’s music too. Indeed, Hopkins himself, in a brief prose note prefacing the poem seemed to recognize this. In part, the note reads thus “… whereas other musicians have given utterance to the moods of man’s mind, he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the very make and species of man as created both in him and in all men generally”. Part of what that last affirmation involves, surely, is the claim that Purcell’s music articulates the whole of human nature, not just one aspect of it.

The songs by Purcell on the current disc are neither as bawdy as a catch like ‘Young John the gard’ner’ nor those catches in which (as Julian Perkins reminds us in his booklet notes) Purcell “penned the instruction ‘Belch’”, yet songs such as ‘Sweeter than roses’ or ‘I came, I saw and was undone’ have too much of human physicality about them to be adequately described as breathing the “air of angels”. Here Anna Dennis’s richer, more variously coloured voice (compared to that of Kirkby) comes into its own – and she, like Kirkby, is sensitively attentive in her handling of the sung text. Indeed, comparing Kirkby’s recording of ‘Sweeter than roses’ on L’Oiseau Lyre 443 195-2) with that on the present CD, I find myself inclined to prefer Dennis’s reading, with its greater variety of vocal weight and timbre, to the more fluid and fleetly decorated version by Kirkby. I wouldn’t, however, want to be without Kirkby’s performance. I think of the two approaches as complementary rather than a matter of ‘better’ and ‘inferior’, so I shall not be revoking my (metaphorical) status as a card-carrying member of the Emma Kirkby fan club.

There are plenty of other successes here too. ‘On the brow of Richmond Hill’ – which gives to Tom D’Urfey’ words a beauty they are far from possessing on the printed page – is sung with an attractive grace. ‘Urge me mo more’, with its startling harmonic shifts, is very well negotiated by Dennis and her accompanists, with an appropriate response to the proto-‘Gothic’ nature of some of the anonymous text’s imagery. Of the two songs setting (undistinguished) words by Bishop William Fuller, Dennis is most convincing in ‘In the black dismal dungeon of despair’, full of the ‘graveyard’ imagery of religious despair. With ‘Now that the sun hath veil’d his light’ (aka An Evening Hymn Z.193) we are in territory where I still prefer Dame Emma’s Purcellian idiom. ‘I came, I saw and was undone’ is, however, a triumph for Dennis, as is ‘Love arms himself in Celia’s eyes’. Listen to these two performances and you will understand, if you don’t already, what Henry Playford had in mind when he wrote (in Orpheus Britannicus of 1706) that Purcell “had a peculiar Genius to express the energy of English words, whereby he mov’d the Passions of all his Auditors”.

The non-Purcellian material on the disc serves (as well as being inherently interesting) to illustrate two of the musical contexts which helped Purcell’s genius to develop – on the one hand, the tradition of English song which runs from Dowland to Purcell via (above all) Henry Lawes and, on the other, the continental influences which Purcell was able to assimilate without ever losing his essential ‘Englishness’. The two songs by Lawes (not among his very best) which Anna Dennis sings are well performed, without making any especial impact.

The instrumental pieces on the CD represent the work of two of the continental European musicians who came to London after the Restoration. Francesco Corbetta, guitar virtuoso and composer, was born in Pavia; he worked in Bologna, Milan and Austria before establishing himself in Paris in the 1650s. There he was admired by the exiled future Charles II. When Charles returned to England he seems to have been accompanied, or at any rate, followed soon after, by Corbetta. He was in London until 1671 when, on returning to Paris he published Le Guitare royale, which was dedicated “au Roy de Grande Bretagne” (ie. Charles II). Corbetta came back to London in 1675 for performances of John Crowne’s court masque Calisto. It seems likely that Purcell would have taken the opportunity to meet Corbetta on that occasion. The suite played here by James Akers comes from Le Guitare royale and may well have been written during Corbetta’s first spell in London. It is made up of four short movements – it is a fairly straightforward dance suite. The first movement, ‘Caprice de Chacone’ is the most attractive: it has often been played (and more than once recorded) in isolation from the three movements (Gigue-Menuet-Autre Chacone) which follow it in the suite; I remember a version for harp being recorded by Andrew Lawrence King and there are recorded performances on guitar by Rolf Lislevand, Michele Pasotti and others. James Akers acquits himself well in all four movements of the suite, though there are moments when slightly more vivacity wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Elsewhere Julian Perkins plays (very persuasively) Giovanni Battista Draghi’s harpsichord suite in E minor, using an instrument – a copy of an anonymous Parisian instrument of 1667, made by Malcolm Rose in 1997 – which sounds thoroughly delightful. Draghi was brought to London by Charles II in the 1660s, in the hope that the Italian would play a part in developing English opera. Though he did write some music for the London theatres, the chief appointments Draghi was given were as a chapel organist, first for Charles’s Queen (in 1673) and then for James II (in 1687). Draghi also taught aristocratic (and royal) pupils. He became a well-established figure in the world of London music; in the words of Jack Westrup “Draghi became so acclimatized that he was commonly spoken of as Mr. Baptist”. In the year before his death there was published, in London, his Six Sutes or Leszons [sic] for the Harpsichord, from which comes the suite played by Perkins. Despite Draghi’s Italian origins all six of these suites sound more French than Italian. In Restoration London’s relatively small world of professional music, figures of the standing of Purcell and Draghi would certainly have met. Slightly odd evidence of a connection between them exists in the form of a manuscript book only discovered in 1993 and subsequently acquired by the British Library (MS Mus. 1, I think); at one end of the book are 21 short harpsichord pieces in Purcell’s hand, at the other there are 17 in Draghi’s hand. It may well have been a book owned by someone learning the harpsichord, who was taught first by Purcell and then by Draghi.

Glyn Pursglove

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