Interpreting Purcell, Redux

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) lived at an expansive time in British music history, when artistic freedom had been restored after a generation of repressive Puritan control. Somehow this allowed Purcell to tap into timeless universals of human existence. Not only is his music still performed often, but it gets reconceived for new eras more than most composers’ work does.

On the CD Purcell : Britten – Purcell Songs Realised by Britten (Champs Hill Records), six singers perform Benjamin Britten’s arrangements of one of his favorite composers – and this was a man deeply versed in the previous centuries of his nation’s music. The key to modernization here is in the piano part, which Britten originally wrote for himself to play while his companion Peter Pears sang. You can hear late Romanticism edging into modern harmonies, and the kind of rolling rhythmic textures that simply didn’t exist in accompaniment the 17th century.

“If Music Be the Food of Love,” sung by mezzo-soprano Anna Grevelius, seems to star pianist Joseph Middleton, but that’s typical of Britten’s approach to piano-and-voice writing; you find it in his arrangements of British and French folksongs, too.


Contrast that with this exquisite recording (from a 2001 Erato release) of the original Purcell by soprano Nancy Argenta, harpsichordist Paul Nicholson, and viola da gambist Richard Boothby playing standard middle-Baroque continuo:


Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Elliot Carter also paid homage to Purcell. On the Onyx Brass’ recent album Pavans, Fantasias, Variations (Meridian Records), there is a nuanced performance of Carter’s A Fantasy about Purcell’s “Fantasy upon One Note” from 1974. As the composer once explained, “The Purcell piece has always seemed to have a dramatic meaning—that of a repeated, tolling, bell-like note sounding through musical episodes of contrasting character. So I decided to make an arrangement for brass that would draw attention to this aspect of the music.”


When comparing with the original, played here on viols by Jordi Savall’s Hespérion XX, it’s striking how delicately played brass can be a reasonable substitute for bowed strings:


Like violins, violas, and cellos, the viol family comes in all sizes, and Purcell wrote what we would call “chamber music” for them (that term is an anachronism, only coming into currency in the late 18th century). Not surprisingly, viol music is often attempted on modern violins, etc. Two string quartets have recent recordings of Purcell Fantasias (or Fantazias, as he spelled it).

I admit to having a hard time with this concept. Unlike the change from viols to brass, the replacement of viols with the violin family always sounds wrong to me; maybe it’s because the instruments are close enough in sound that their differences stand out more. Contrary to popular belief, the viol is not a predecessor to or truly related to the violin: they have fretted and unfretted fingerboards, respectively, which affects the very concepts of fingering and intonation.

That said, the Emerson String Quartet gives a strong, musical performance on their new Music of Britten and Purcell (DeccaGold). Here’s the Fantazia No. 11 in G Major:


The recent recording of some of Purcell’s fantasias by the Apple Hill String Quartet (self-produced) does not fare as well. The overall sound is breathier, with more vibrato. The instinct is to say it’s “less authentic.” But then, once you switch to instruments that did not exist in the composer’s lifetime, who’s to say what “authentic” means? Still, I longed for first violinist Elise Kruder to make more stable contact with the string, no matter what she was playing.


The biggest sonic difference between viols and the modern violin family is the more subdued timbre in the former. Compare those Emerson and Apple Hill tracks with this recording of Purcell’s Fantazia No. 8 in D minor as played by the group Wildcat Viols, a teaser from their album-in-production, The Magnifick Four:


Presenting Purcell in modern ways is not a new idea, and the range of creativity in evidence is astonishing. Here’s a classic example: Wendy Carlos was asked by Stanley Kubrick to arrange some Purcell on the Moog synthesizer for Kubrick’s 1971 film of A Clockwork Orange. Carlos turned Funeral March for Queen Mary into one of the most frightening pieces of music ever:


The potential is limitless; Purcell works well in any guise. Once, in a Manhattan subway station, I heard a woman playing “Dido’s Lament” on a saw. After I recovered from my surprise, I found it beautiful.

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