Interesting Purcell performances in Berlin  

GermanyGermany Purcell: Preussens Hofmusik (Laura Volkwein, Ulricke Bassenge [violins]; Helene Wilke [viola]; Egbert Schimmelpfennig [cello]; Joachim Klier [violone]; Joachim Elser [trombone]), Matthias Wilke (director, viola, organ). Apollosaal, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 7.11.2019. (MB)

Purcell – Sonata in three parts, in G minor, Z 790; Fantazia upon one note in five parts, in F major, Z 745; Fantazias in three parts, Z 732-4; Fantazias in four parts, Z 736-7; In nomine in six parts, in G minor, Z 746; Fantazias in four parts, Z 738-43; In nomine in seven parts, in G minor, Z 747; Sonata in three parts, in A major, Z 799

The Staatskapelle Berlin traces its history back to 1570, making next year its 450th anniversary. (On New Year’s Eve, alongside the traditional Beethoven Ninth Symphony, Daniel Barenboim will also direct Mozart’s KV 450 from the piano.) Preussens Hofmusik, drawn from the orchestra’s ranks, takes the era of Frederick the Great as its centre of gravity. For this Apollosaal concert, part of the Staatsoper’s Barocktage, we heard music from somewhere in between. As a prelude or pendant – depending on when one sees it – to a new production of King Arthur we heard fantazias and sonatas by Purcell, directed from the viola or, in the case of the latter, the chamber organ, by Matthias Wilke.

First we heard the G minor Sonata in three parts, Z 790, here given with two violins, violone, and organ. It made for an excellent introduction, equally expressive in a refreshingly undemonstrative way of Purcellian melancholy and vigour, as aristocratic, learned, and courtly as it was ‘popular’. Dissonances told, yet so did its transmuted dance rhythms, never confusing genre for function. (The reader may grimly recall the absurdity of those fashion victims who claim Bach’s St Matthew Passion should dance, and so on.)

After a brief spoken introduction by Wilke, we then heard the Fantazia upon one Note, followed by the three works ‘in three parts’ (in the order 1, 3, and 2), the first three ‘in four parts’, and the G minor In nomine, in six. All pieces sounded as they are: small and perfectly formed, leaving one wishing for more. Although performed on modern instruments (more or less), there was no sense of anachronism, but rather of a reinvention of Purcell’s consort that went beyond the merely archaeological. Members of the consort, both personnel and instrument, changed for each piece, revealing a greater as well as subtler differentiation in instrumentation and texture than the cynic, or indeed the merely uninformed, might suspect. A couple of puzzling false starts suggested that it was not always entirely clear who would be playing what, but such human fallibility would upset only the sourest of audience members. Melody and counterpoint were kept in fine balance. Combinations such as violin, viola, and cello (for the G minor Fantazia, Z 734) matched relative darkness of timbre to mood, without so much as hinting at inappropriately (post)Romantic gloom. Indeed, that piece, like many others, quite rightly looked back more to the consort music of Purcell’s English predecessors – Lawes, Locke, Jenkins, et al. – as to the chamber music of the eighteenth century. That said, once one had come to the F major Fantazia, Z 737, it was difficult to resist the sense, however anachronistic, or at least unduly teleological, of losing oneself in counterpoint as one might with Bach. The closing In nomine – of this section, that is – gained, as did its G minor successor in the next section, from adding a trombone to voice gently the cantus firmus. Such creative archaism, if that be what it was, afforded clarity as well as variety.

Preceding that second In nomine, we heard the remaining Fantazias in four parts (Z 738-47), all but one in the minor mode. Far from precluding variety, that seemed to encourage one to listen all the more closely for difference and distinction, as of course did the ongoing plan of assigning different players and instruments to each piece. A courtly serenity to the C minor piece, Z 738, set us on a fascinating path culminating in an elegantly involved D minor Fantazia, Z 743, and the seven-part In nomine in which we finally heard all players together. The full sound of its close was relative, not in the slightest overblown, and all the more welcome for that. A further trio sonata, that in A major, Z 799, both returned us to close where we had begun and reminded us that the experience had rendered such return illusory. It offered a winning contrast of mood, infectious both of rhythm and broader style. Looking forward more overtly to the next century, there was perhaps a sense of greater security than had always been the case in the Fantazias. Perhaps those few off-moments had simply required a little more rehearsal. It was salutary, in any case, to be reminded that is far from easy music to perform.

Mark Berry

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