Purcell: Accomplished Beyond His Years

United StatesUnited States  Purcell: Les Violons du Roi, La Chapelle de Québec, Richard Egarr (conductor), Stern/Perelman Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 12.4.2015 (SSM)

Dorothea Röschmann, Soprano
Henk Neven, Baritone
Dorothea Röschmann, Soprano
Henk Neven, Baritone
Hélène Guilmette, Soprano
Stefanie True, Soprano
Vicki St. Pierre, Mezzo-Soprano
Lesley Emma Bouza, Soprano
Sheila Dietrich, Soprano
Daniel Cabena, Countertenor
Bud Roach, Tenor
Jacques-Olivier Chartier, Tenor
Stephen Hegedus, Bass-Baritone


Excerpts from The Fairy Queen and King Arthur
Dido and Aeneas


This concert is part of the Before Bach series currently being presented at Carnegie Hall. Although Henry Purcell, born in 1659, falls within the parameters that define the series, he was much ahead of his contemporaries, combining his own unique talents with a thorough understanding of music from Italy and France. He brought English music out of the age of modality and into the future, where tonality was to blossom in the music of Handel. Like Mozart and Schubert, who also died at a too-early age, Purcell was a musical genius whose compositions flowed effortlessly. Listening to his music leaves one in awe of his ability to create melody upon melody. As a previous age had its genius in the form of Shakespeare, late-17th-century England had its genius in the form of Purcell.

The first half of this program consisted of excerpts from two semi- operas, The Fairy Queen and King Arthur. I was at first somewhat taken aback with the quality of the sound that the orchestra produced. The last Fairy Queen production I attended, in a small theater downtown, had one voice per part for the instrumental backup and a chorus that consisted solely of cast members. That orchestra produced a perfect reading of the music, both rustic and intimate. The acoustics of the Stern/Perelman Hall proved bottom heavy, with the highs getting lost somewhere above the 2000 seats. Even with moderation in the use of vibrato, at times I couldn’t help but think of Mantovani, so lush were the strings.

The vocalists were on the mark, highlighted by the brief appearances of Stefanie True as the First Nymph in the aria “How happy the lovers” from King Arthur and the Second Woman in Dido and Aeneas. She has the wherewithal to project her voice in a way that overcame the tricky acoustics of the hall. To my ears, she was the only soloist whose voice had the right color: the color we have come to expect from vocalists singing music of the Baroque period.

Richard Egarr has been an all-around musician this season, as soloist and director/conductor of the Academy of Ancient Music and now as guest conductor of the Canadian Les Violons du Roi. And that just accounts for his musical presence in NYC. In this concert he conducted from a harpsichord, providing the sole keyboard support for the basso continuo (although there were also the standard archlute, bass and Baroque guitar). It’s not unusual in a concert of this sort for the conductor to be part of the continuo, and it is done by many keyboardists turned conductors such as William Christie, Christophe Rousset and Trevor Pinnock. The logistics of leading the group while playing an instrument required Egarr to jump up and down, which was particularly detrimental to several initial upbeats. After a few notes, the group pulled together, but there was some confusion for a few of the members of the orchestra who were not quite ready to begin.

Dorothea Röschmann has long been an advocate of early music, her rich voice a staple in revivals of Baroque operas by Telemann, Keiser and Alessandro Scarlatti. She had no difficulty internalizing the emotions expressed in the heartfelt texts and melodies, particularly in the two dirge-like arias, “O let me weep” from the Fairy Queen and, of course, “When I am laid to rest” from Dido and Aeneas. It is hard for me to say this without sounding churlish, but the great performances of “Dido’s Lament” have been by soloists with less “operatic” voices. Topping my list would be Lorraine Hunt Lieberman’s account with Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

Stan Metzger      

For information on the Before Bach series which runs until the end of the month see:  Before Bach

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