Elegy - Purcell and Blow. © 2019 Vivat Music Foundation

CD Spotlight

A Stupendous Disc

countertenor duets by Purcell and Blow

'The music is sensationally beautiful and touching - and so are the performances.'


This is a stupendous disc from Vivat. The music is sensationally beautiful and touching - and so are the performances. Together they resurrect the English early Baroque in all its varying emotional guises: the elated, the grieving, the utterly despondent.

Henry Purcell and John Blow were near enough contemporaries. Nottinghamshire-born Blow (1649-1708) was the older by ten years. Conscripted, if not quite abducted, as a boy treble for the Chapel Royal, at a very young age he became organist of Westminster Abbey, made way for Purcell (1659-1695) and reassumed the post after the latter's tragic early death. Their experiences in learning their trade were broadly the same - French and Italian influences. Both were masters of their art.

Anyone who has heard - and savoured - Iestyn Davies sing meltingly Handel's Birthday Ode for Queen Anne ('Eternal source of light divine'), or 'O Lord, whose Mercies Numberless' (taking the role of David in Handel's Saul at Glyndebourne), or perform the countertenor vocalist in Mark Rylance's award-laden stage play Farinelli and the King (in London and on Broadway) will know that here is a voice - and a personality - truly remarkable.

And so he is here. Just a brief listen to the amorous, and distinctly Romantic, track 1, 'Hark how the songsters of the grove / Sing anthems to the God of Love', with its trilling recorders conjuring up a chirruping aubade - dawn chorus - of mellifluous chanting and pretty much comic content, gives a feel from the outset of the marvellous calibre of the singing. The inviting canonic writing and some exquisite parallelling in thirds between the singers reveal musical features that play a key role throughout the disc.

Listen — Purcell: Hark how the songsters
(track 1, 0:01-0:55) © 2019 Vivat Music Foundation :

These two composers are cut from the same cloth, and the sheer insight they have into affect - the various ways of inducing emotion by skilfully engineered musical effects - is matched by the sheer mastery of the singing and instrumental playing here.

Countertenors, not least those Oxbridge-trained, have formed a kind of line of succession since the great Alfred Deller. Bowman, Charles Brett - Deller's initial partner, Esswood, Oberlin (in range virtually a haut-contre, ie a very high tenor), Michael Chance, Robin Blaze, Andreas Scholl - Davies' original pin-up, who opened the young singer's eyes to Handel, David Daniels; and there are many others on the current English, French, German and American (and even Japanese) scene. Iestyn Davies at the moment is at the very top of his profession: which is why the Met, Houston and Glyndebourne have hastened to sign him up, and loved him at first hearing.

How lucky Purcell and Blow are to have such a recording in their honour. Every part of this disc is beautifully and affectionately sung by both soloists. Their accomplishment is staggering.

The next two tracks could not be more different from the trilling avian chorus of the first. 'In vain the am'rous flute' (track 2) sounds as if it should be bursting with adrenaline, but rather it is languid and wan. To appreciate the art of the writing, just think how skilled it is to spin out just five lines into a six and a half-minute piece. Here Tokyo-born Reiko Ichise's bass viol - she is a Professor at the Royal Academy and has been a doyen of the Academy of Ancient Music, the Gabrieli Consort and other top early music ensembles - plays a particularly special role.

'O solitude, my sweetest choice' (track 3), one of Purcell's most touching solo settings, is incredibly sad: deeply grieving, verging on gloomy depression. This is a long text, some 28 lines long, with the opening two words repeated in the last line, a structural touch that allows the soloist to recap on the desperate situation the fretful speaker faces. Not just solitude, but agonising sorrows, woes such as only Death can cure, even suicidal visions, make their entry.

All this is underscored by an exceptional, extensively repeated ground bass - see below. All the more tragic, as the much-admired poet who furnished the words, Katherine Phillips (1631/2 to 1664), died at an even younger age than Purcell. A long text such as this calls to mind Purcell's dazzlingly beautiful setting (for soprano) of 'The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation': there the dramatic quality is more marked than in this sombre meditation, but the composer's marvellous maintaining of intensity is perhaps comparable.

The instrumentalists, all the more exposed as there are no violins, have their fun with an orchestral passage from Diocletian, Purcell's 1690 semi-opera. This generates often unusual and attractive textures. It's a charming movement, subtly nudged along by yet another ground bass. (Purcell, and perhaps his Franco-Italian predecessors and contemporaries, were profoundly fond of this format.) The wistfulness - this is another slow track - echoes the reflections of the Roman Emperor (one of the most strict of them all) as his thoughts turn to amours.

'Sound the trumpet' (track 6) is one of Purcell's most celebrated duets, given renewed life by the joyous performances of Alfred Deller. Robert King's notes are always informative, but also fun: he cites an amusing coincidence between Nahum Tate's text and two of the original orchestral players. It's fast moving, the pacing here is as ideal as any rival performance, and an interesting viewpoint is that King and his two singers take it at a slightly more sub-fusc, that is more restrained, dynamic. It works rather well. These trumpets are not muted, but are instead strikingly elegant. The piece is allowed to breathe, rather than verging on frenetic.

'Since the toils' - track 7, Davies alone - is perhaps a little wearisome, and oddly muted, given that it expresses joy with 'cymbals and harps, viols and lutes': the fluting here is a bit pedestrian and predictable, and the voice pallid. One of two possibly less successful tracks on this disc, otherwise so excellent in countless ways.

The following duet, 'Sing ye Druids' - a gloriously bouncy and most skilfully wrought movement (track 8) - is top drawer Purcell. It certainly dances, as Boadicea might have cavorted in the play this formed part of, believing her city-incinerating rebellion would succeed. Purcell was prodigiously prolific in his last two years, 1694 and 1695 - witness his wondrous Funeral Music for Queen Mary, who died in December 1694, so the music almost inevitably dates from early the next year, in time for the Royal funeral in early March. His music for Timon of Athens, The Tempest and The Indian Queen all date from these two years. Here it's a delight to encounter the words 'to celebrate ...', which he also set so unforgettably in his 'Come ye Sons of Art' ('To celebrate this triumphant day').

The brief track 9, Blow's Latin anthem 'Paratum cor meum', a setting of five verses from Psalm 107 ('My heart is ready, O God'), has a lovely lilting, even rocking, feel. It's positive and radiant, most apt for the words, for example: 'psallam tibi in nationibus' - 'I will sing to You among the nations'. It also exemplifies Robert King's point that perhaps the prime difference between the composers is that Blow focused mostly on sacred music - his opera Venus and Adonis is an obvious exception - whereas Purcell diverged widely between stageworks, viol consort music, solo songs, ribald catches, and much else.

Listen — Blow: Paratum cor meum
(track 9, 1:22-1:58) © 2019 Vivat Music Foundation :

In such elegant vocal writing diction is, if not all, crucial. Take the pair's lovely rolling of r's - 'misericordia', 'Exultare', 'terram'. When together, they are always dead together. And one element, here and often elsewhere, is the incredibly inspired way both singers, whether directly paired or in imitative close canon - the word 'fugue' (chasing) could apply perfectly here - lean into certain phrases and passages: not a slurring or sliding, but an extraordinary slight 'give' preceding, or interspersing, certain words. A kind of rubato, perhaps, but it feels even more subtle than that. It's one of the many features that makes this new Vivat disc so sublime.

Vivat, incidentally, is quite a young company. Yet it already has a staggeringly accomplished team of both younger and well-established performers on its books: Robert King himself, John Mark Ainsley, Charles Daniels, James Gilchrist, Sarah Connolly, Ann Murray, Caroline Sampson, Angelika Kirschlager, the Allegri Quartet, the young Julia Doyle (wonderful) and baritone Alexei Gusev, Christopher Maltman, David Wilson-Johnson. Vivat is joining the big players, and their services to repertoire are much to be admired too.

Iestyn Davies and James Hall fit together like peaches and cream. They are utterly beguiling. They balance each other exquisitely, with great consideration and endless sensitivity. Neither dominates (except perhaps once), or oppresses; neither overstates, nor understates. The enunciation being perfect, their musical sensitivity is patently world class, their mutual understanding and empathy is obvious, their intelligent - and historically aware - shaping of this music quite sensational.

There may be a logical reason for their so perfectly setting each other off, and meshing together, in these Blow and Purcell duets. Iestyn Davies and James Hall have been friends on and off stage for some years. Indeed Hall was the alternate countertenor in Rylance's batty play, at both venues.

Together they have toured these Blow and Purcell items at least to France - Versailles providing the perfect setting for the early Baroque. Hall understudied Davies at Glyndebourne; he has mastered roles in some ten to a dozen Handel operas, so he is (as countertenors must be) something of a Baroque specialist, as well as prominent in contemporary opera - Nico Muhly, Brett Dean et al. This past season he was back at Glyndebourne singing in Rinaldo. This May he took on his first Oberon - the role that launched Bowman's career - at Montpellier, and will repeat it for Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2019-20.

This is no second fiddle: Hall's countertenor voice, surely rightly described by The Arts Desk as 'flawless'- is spectacular too. Davies, who turned forty this very month, and who sings, I take it - perhaps wrongly - the three or four solo items on this Vivat disc, may have gained not just a great chum and counterpart but a budding rival: not so much solitude as plenitude.

Davies' enviable mastery is perhaps no surprise. His very name - 'Justin' in English, which means 'just' or 'righteous' - suits his caring and deeply involved approach to sacred music perfectly. He was a boy chorister (from the age of eight) at St John's College, Cambridge. His father, Ioan Davies, was a professional instrumentalist. He was a teenager at Wells Cathedral School - like Chesham's, the Purcell School and the Yehudi Menuhin School - one of the UK's outstanding specialist music schools.

He takes the solo role in a three-way series of Elegies commemorating the late Queen Mary - Mary II, joint ruler with William III of Orange, following the rebellion of 1688, unleashed by Mary's Catholic father, James II. The music of these has everything one could seek in an apt, and deeply moving, but not cloying, commemoration of a much-loved monarch.

Listen — Purcell: The Queen's Epicedium: Incassum Lesbia
(track 10, 0:00-0:56) © 2019 Vivat Music Foundation :

The first, in Latin ('Incassum Lesbia', track 10) is enchanting, deeply saddened, yet celebratory, and so is the same text, in a Latin version, which follows, in this case a quite lengthy setting by Blow (track 11). Here the word 'affect', used above, is surely so appropriate. 'Regina, heu! Arcadiae regina periit' - that word heu! ('alas') so profoundly - well, affecting. And near the end, the Latin word 'singultu' - 'sobbing', where Purcell produces a heaving sound, almost a bubbling, or a blubbing.

Davies' gift is of characterising not just individual phrases, but whole chapters of music with a depth, personality, and indeed an affection that colours everything he embarks on. He has, indeed, the Midas Touch. To all intents and purposes, he now reigns supreme. St John's, and Wells, have produced - as so often - a leader in his field. He has an impressive range: unfazed in high register, he can descend into the depths with scarcely a whiff of a gear change. He and Hall both have an endearing gift of making coloratura, whether in high or middle range, sound effortless. And that must demonstrate the incredible effort they have put since youth into initiating, testing, pondering, endlessly practising, exploring, probing their role as countertenors. We are the beneficiaries.

Latin returns in the third Elegy, Purcell's 'O dive custos Auriacae domus' (track 12). All these three texts have a typical Dryden-era hue, and without being clichéd or obsequious follow the traditions of employing florid but surely expressive language to encapsulate moments of joy or, conversely, of desolation. These three Elegies all convey the overwhelming feeling of sadness, indeed misery, that gripped the nation upon the death of, first the Queen, and then Purcell himself.

This last - a duet - in the opening section deliberately not exaggerated but underplayed, the tender and sorrowing, invocatory singing of both countertenors in this extended lament - all three are around seven minutes long - reveals the marvels of poetry and music alike. The middle section hots up somewhat, but it is surely the anguished, chromatically edging final section that must have so moved hearts of the populace during this lethal decade that closed the seventeenth century. Not only the Muses, and the House of Orange ('Auriaca'), but Oxford and Cambridge's shy rivers Cam and Isis are conjoined in the mourning. Taken together, these aching settings by the two composers are as eloquent a commendation for the Vivat disc as could be needed.

Except that what follows, John Blow's An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell, is a culmination that brings yet more wonders. The work is almost top of countertenors' early experience of duetting: gifted aspiring or undergraduate choral scholars in Oxford, Cambridge and the world over are doubtless intoning it even as I write.

This essentially three-part ode - the seven sections draw on the three strophes of Dryden's verse - has been recorded many times. But it is the sort of work of which enthusiasts will surely want two or even three different versions. Each one has its own distinctive character: Deller and John Whitworth - my own teacher, as it happens, Deller and son, Bowman and René Jacobs, plus several taken by tenors, notably Rogers Covey-Crump and Charles Daniels on one of the three Hyperion issues.

How glorious that Dryden text is - enough to draw music of sublime loveliness, on this of all occasions, from John Blow. Don't just relish, but wallow in, that unmatched 1690s text: 'But in the close of night' (as cheer is subdued and darkness impends); 'And list'ning and silent obey' (both track 14); 'The matchless matchless man, alas ...' (track 15: lovely, relevant dropped voices from the two soloists at the repeats); 'We beg not hell, our Orpheus to restore' (track 16), 'their jarring (twice repeated) sphere' (track 17); 'They handed him along, And all the way he taught, and all the way they sung' (track 18); 'Now live secure'. If Dryden in numerous plays and epic-like verses has his dry or dull moments, this was not one of them. Nugget follows nugget. This is gold.

Listen — Blow: The heav'nly quire (An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell)
(track 18, 2:07-2:57) © 2019 Vivat Music Foundation :

And so it is with the music. Any part of this exquisite creation would bear witness to the glories of Blow's invention.

One or two reservations for Vivat to note. The CD cover seems - to me - inept and irrelevant. It's not clear, so far as I can discern, which of the pair is singing top or bottom alto in each piece - if they swap around. It's also an assumption - justified or unjustified? - that Davies has all the solo sections. Robert King's introduction is impeccable, but switching between his notes on each track and the texts becomes a bit of a nightmare. It's common for CD companies to organise their sleeve notes thus, but one I recently encountered put the notes on each piece immediately above the text. No switching, no getting muddled.

There are delightful descriptions of the instruments' histories - sundry recorders, all modern remakes based precisely on originals dated circa 1700 (ie of exactly the period of Blow and Purcell); bass viol (from circa 1690, so Purcell would still have been hale and hearty!); theorbo; baroque guitar, based on an Italian instrument of circa 1620; and King's Harpsichord and Chamber organ - the former actually modelled on a 1577 Roman prototype. There are no biographies of conductor, singers or the five excellent instrumentalists; and one dreadful rearside distant snap, amateurish and miserably lit, of Davies on the last page. (How did such things get by?)

All the same, it's the music that counts. Robert King, whose achievements as conductor, arranger, researcher are so much to be admired, has by his zest for both major and undeservedly unfamiliar composers of the Baroque, unearthed so many treasures - think of his magical rediscoveries of Kuhnau, Schelle et al, many now available on Hyperion's reduced price Helios label - delivering them in world-class, beautifully judged and perfectly calibrated interpretations.

What music, what musicianship, what performances! This Vivat disc leaves one spellbound and enthralled.

Copyright © 24 September 2019 Roderic Dunnett,
Coventry UK





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