The Genius of Purcell at St John’s Delights and Amazes in Equal Measure

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell: Soloists, OSJ Ashmolean Voices, Orchestra of St John’s, John Lubbock (conductor). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 15.9.2015 (MB)

Chacony in G minor

Arias and duets: Music for a while; Sweeter than roses; My dearest, my fairest; If music be the food of love; Bonduca’s song; Sound the trumpet; Evening hymn; Hark the echoing air

Penelope Appleyard, Hannah Davey, Anna Shackleton (sopranos)
Ellie Edmonds (mezzo-soprano)
Johnny Herford (baritone)
John Heley (cello)
Howard Moody (organ)

Dido and Aeneas

Dido – Francesca Saracino
Aeneas – Johnny Herford
Belinda – Hannah Davey
Sorceress – Charlotte Tetley
First Witch – Anna Shackleton
Second Witch – Ellie Edmonds
Second Woman – Penelope Appleyard
Spirit – Rachel Crisp
Sailor – Mitesh Khatri

A delightful concert of music from the English Orpheus, the composer whom I unhesitatingly consider the greatest between Monteverdi and Bach. Indeed, I know of no greater piece of instrumental music before Bach than Purcell’s Chacony in G minor. Its searing dissonances and overwhelming marriage of formal dynamism and musico-dramatic development all spoke here with unexaggerated yet unquestionable power. Four players, one to a part, showed that larger forces are no absolute requirement. The excellent acoustic of St John’s, Smith Square, certainly assisted. (What a relief to be spared the Royal Albert Hall!) Inner parts, in particular, resounded with richness, but always directed richness. Shading was beautiful – and yes, goal-oriented too.

Following that splendid ‘overture’, we heard five young singers in arias and duets from various Purcellian sources. Johnny Herford’s Music for a while benefited, as did the other numbers, from organ continuo playing (Howard Moody) that was imaginative without exhibitionism. Herford’s vocal decoration was likewise; his rendition of ‘drop, drop, drop, …’ did everything it should. In Sweeter than roses and Bonduca’s song, Penelope Appleyard displayed a winning match of the plaintive and expertly-negotiated coloratura. Sound the trumpet, in which Appleyard was joined by Hannah Davey, had a swift, finely balanced performance, whilst Anna Shackleton displayed a ‘whiter’ voice in Evening hymn. Ellie Edmonds’s richer mezzo lacked nothing in flexibility in If music be the food of love.

Dido and Aeneas: well, if it is not the finest opera between Poppea and Idomeneo, then I should clearly resign my job forthwith. This ‘Tristan und Isolde in a pintpot’ (Raymond Leppard) rarely, if ever, ceases to amaze; it certainly did not here. Its inexorable musico-dramatic tragedy, its vocal and harmonic mastery, and not least a fine performance worked their magic once again. John Lubbock’s tempi were well suited to the work and each other; his orchestra, again one to a part, belied in richness and commitment such apparent ‘restriction’. The choir sang well, its off-stage echoes a particular highlight, but the closing chorus proved equally impressive. The simplest of stagings permitted Purcell’s drama to ‘speak for itself’.

Francesca Saracino had, in the first act, occasional instances of hesitancy, especially in the falling off of phrases, but she acted well – a highly expressive face a boon here – and grew in tragic stature. If she did not overwhelm the cast as some great Didos of the past have done, that was no loss; indeed, it permitted greater depth of characterisation. Hannah Davey’s Belinda had a couple of unfortunate fallings out of sync with the orchestra, but she recovered well and continued to display the virtues we had heard before the interval. Aeneas is a tricky role, perhaps not entirely unlike Don Ottavio: how does one present a strong characterisation of a culpably weak character? One can, of course, but verbal and musical subtlety should come to the fore, as they did with Johnny Herford. Charlotte Tetley’s Sorceress was quite mesmerising, her stage presence splendidly allied to vocal resources. Special mention should go to Mitesh Khatri’s spirited, engagingly flirtatious Sailor. I hope – and am sure – that we shall hear more from many of these singers. And how wonderful, even if for one night only, to have Purcell rescued from the clutches of ‘authenticity’!

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment