Andreas Scholl, Harry Bicket and The English Concert Perform Purcell to Perfection

United StatesUnited States  Biber, Purcell, Muffat:  Andreas Scholl (countertenor), The English Concert, Harry Bicket (conductor), Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 20.10.2011 (SSM)

Harry Bicket and his generically named The English Concert joined countertenor Andreas Scholl in a delectable program of vocal and instrumental works of Henry Purcell with brief introductory appetizers by Heinrich Biber as the first piece performed and by Georg Muffat for the opening after the intermission.

Biber’s “Sonata a 6” is in a modified fast-slow style with the valveless solo trumpet alternating with the strings, except at the end where the trumpet joins the strings for a fugue-like coda and final fanfare. The trumpeter Mark Bennett, fearless and undaunted, played the difficult trumpet part, creating the sounds by only the shaping of his lips (embouchure).

Henry Purcell is the greatest native born English composer, which excludes Handel, born in Halle, and includes Elgar. Although only 36 when he died, the Zimmerman catalog of his works goes up to number 850. No one really knows from where his skill in writing music came. He never left England, yet his knowledge of the French style of music was completely internalized.  At 18 he replaced the deceased Matthew Locke as Master of the Music for the King.

Why his music is not better known is a mystery. Yes, there have been productions of his main semi-operas The Fairy Queen, King Arthur and Dido and Aeneas, but there are still hundreds of works never performed. Both William Christie for his productions of Purcell’s works and Robert King for his recordings of the complete odes, anthems and songs, should be commended.

Bicket and Scholl made their contribution to boost Purcell’s reputation in this performance at Zankel Hall. Scholl, his voice slightly weak at the beginning, warmed up and gained body as the concert progressed. The opening “Sweeter than roses,” because of its difficult harmonic shifts going from the languorous “First trembling made me freeze” to the explosive roulades of the next line, “That shot like fire o’er,” should have been performed later when Scholl’s voice had found its groove.

“Music for a while” opens with the basso continuo playing a ground that is continually repeated through the entire work. This harmonic technique is common in Purcell and his contemporaries as a way to weave a melody without having to write the bass line. The cello and harpsichord sensitively served as the accompaniment in this song.

The song “An Evening Hymn,” is a prayer before bedtime which ends oddly with a “Hallelujah.” Scholl handled this oxymoron by taking a middle position of being neither too pious, nor too joyous. Then came the  delightful chaconne which ends King Arthur,  followed by the opening overture.

Perhaps, one of Purcell’s most touching pieces of music is the mesmerizing “O, Solitude, my sweetest choice.” Another song based on a repetitive ground, the bass replays the motif 28 times, resulting in not quite a Philip Glassian moment but somewhere near there. Scholl’s sensitive reading of this poem brought out it’s haunting emotions.

At this point in the concert, there were some last minute changes. The song “Shepherd, shepherd, leave decoying,” from King Arthur was played by the orchestra but not sung by Scholl. The reason is simple: it is written to be sung by two singers in the soprano range. Andrea Scholl is a wonderful singer, but may not be good enough to sing two voices (even if they are only doubled). Having confused the audience with not singing what he was programmed to sing, he sang the aria from the Winter Scene: “What power art thou.” Without knowing the context, one might not understand the gasps of breath taken by the Cold Genius woken by Cupid in the libretto. (Mark Morris in his version of King Arthur for the New York City Opera, has this song performed by the singer inside a refrigerator!)  Scholl sang very well but the piece works better when done, as it usually is, by a bass.

The symphony from Act V is very much a throwback to an earlier musical era with the violins bouncing back and forth motifs in the style of the pre-Vivaldi schools of violin playing. The magical and soulful song “Fairest isle,”  followed by the overture to Act I, led to the intermission.

The “Passacaglia from the Sonata No. 5” by Georg Muffat is a good example of a confusion in musical categorization. The observant listener might ask what the difference is between a passacaglia and a chaconne and the answer is none. Perhaps in the composer’s mind, passacaglia seems to express a freer form than the strict chaconne, but over the years they have merged into the same form. This work requires tremendous technical skills, particularly from the first violinist, and Matthew Truscott admirably played some of the more difficult variations.

Purcell’s “One charming night,” a catchy tune with a sensuous instrumental combination of woodwinds, was another highlight of the evening. The instrumental “Dance for the Followers of night” is so close in spirit to the classic dances written by Lully (and even includes the tambourine, a common instrument in Lully’s orchestra) that it seems amazing  Purcell never received musical training in France.

Next came one of the pieces added at the last minute to the program: “If music be the food of love,” with lovely melismas sung by Scholl. A little later he performed the second added song, “Strike the viol,” from one of Purcell’s many odes. Without tempo markings and dynamic indicators it’s the performer’s choice, but I would have preferred a more lively interpretation than Scholl gave here; as the words themselves say “in cheerful and harmonious lays.”

These two songs replaced the poignant “If love’s a sweet passion,”  which  ends, as is common in Purcell’s odes, with a choral ritornello. It is not unusual though, where choral resources are not available, to simply have the instrumental accompaniment replace the chorus, and this could have been done here.

Dido’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas gave Scholl the opportunity to use his abilities to express the most heartfelt feelings imaginable in this most pitiable song. How can anyone not resist the final line of the song: “Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate”?

The program appropriately ended with the chaconne that ends The Fairy Queen. This practice of ending a Baroque opera with a chaconne is common in many operas of this period from Lully to Rameau.

Although not revealed by the conductor or the singer, the encore was another Purcell gem, “Here the deities approve” from the ode “Welcome to All the Pleasures.” Another song based on a repeating ground, this work really hits its mark after the words are sung and the instrumental ritornello builds to a glorious finale: an irresistible finish to an irresistible concert.

An encore of  “Music for a while,” provided an irresistible finish to an irresistible concert.

Stan Metzger