United Kingdom Locke/Banister/Humfrey/Reggio, Purcell: Academy of Ancient Music / Laurence Cummings (director / harpsichord / organ). Milton Court, London, 9.3.2023. (CC)
Locke/Banister/Humfrey/Reggio – Suite from The Tempest (1667)
Purcell – Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day, Z 328 (1692)
What a fascinating coupling this was. A pity the auditorium wasn’t fuller – in the first half I was the only person in my entire row. As an exemplar of Great British music (as it were), this was a refreshing change from more familiar fare. particularly the first half, an expansive Suite from The Tempest using a text by John Dryden and William D’Avenant based on the Shakespeare original. The play boasted music from five composers based in England: Matthew Locke (621/2-77), John Banister (1630-79, former master of the King’s violin band), Pelham Humfrey (1647-74, Master of the Children of the Royal Chapel) and Pietro Reggio (1632-85); most of the pieces in the Suite are by Locke. Laurence Cummings recited passages of text to ‘place’ us in the plot.
Matthew Locke’s music is of a stunning level of invention, as a staging of his Cupid and Death at Versailles in March 2022 by Ensemble Correspondences under Sébastien Daucé conclusively proved. The music here by Locke comprises five movements: Introduction, Gailliard, Gavot, Saraband and Lilk. The set of three dances that opened the suite (Locke’s Introduction, Gailliard and Gavot) are over almost as soon as they begin, a dignified Introduction ceding to a perky, dotted-rhythm Galliard and an even more sprightly Gavot.
Fascinating to hear Pietro Reggio’s ‘Arise, ye subterranean winds’ with its lovely illustration of wretches’ howling (‘There let ‘em howl’ brilliantly invoked by bass Ben Davies). The contrast to the calm of Locke’s ‘Curtain Tune’ could hardly be greater, and the Academy of Ancient Music provided a place of peace profound before opening out in to more vigorous rhythm. This is a fascinating, a most modern-sounding movement. If Eloise Irving’s rendition of Banister’s setting of ‘Full Fathom Five’ was a touch over-vibratoed, it could not disguise the eloquence of Banister’s piece, and Irving’s lovely onomatopoeic ‘Ding-dong Bell’ was pure delight. Nice to hear Locke’s Saraband at a nicely danceable tempo, courtly yet deep with some stunning part-writing; the bracing ‘Lilk,’ the nicely playful ‘Rustick Air’ and the rhythmic play of Locke’s Corante provided fine contrast.
The most substantial portion of this Suite was Pelham Humfrey’s ‘The Masque of Neptune’ (sometimes called ‘The Masque of Neptune and Amphitrite’). Martha McLorihan’s warm mezzo brought Amphitrite alive (‘My Lord, Great Neptune, for my sake’), with Ben McKee as her firm-voiced lover, Neptune. Their duet, ‘Be calm, ye Parent of the Floods’. Aeolus, placed at the back of the stage, was the fine tenor Christopher Bowen (doing a nice melodic imitation of a fanfare at the line ‘Then let your Trumpeters proclaim a Peace’). How beautiful, too, the Chorus of Tritons’s ‘Sound a Calm’ before the catchy (and here rhythmically sprung) ‘Dance of Four Tritons’. The character of Tethys has only two lines to sing, but they were brilliantly taken by soprano Jenni Harper.
Locke’s infection ‘A Martial Jigge’ acted as a nice instrumental insert before Humfrey’s setting of ‘Where the Bee Sucks’; Harper it was who sang from the balcony, a perfect vocal leave-taking before the glorious instrumental counterpoint of Locke’s A Canon 4 in 2 closed the first half. The impeccable performance of this last by the AAM’s musicians exemplified the superb instrumental quality throughout.
The scale of performance increased exponentially for Purcell’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, Z 328 of 1692, with the additions of trumpets, drums, recorders, flutes, oboes and a six-part choir with six solo parts (and with Cummings now on organ). Taking a text by Nicholas Brady, Purcell revels in the descriptions of the various instruments, from the ‘airy violin’ to the ‘amorous flute’. After a ‘Symphony’ that could perhaps have carried a little more pomp, bass Ben Davies’s ‘Hail! Bright Cecilia’ was delivered with authority (and echoed with equal verve by the AAM Chorus). Countertenor Mark Chambers has a lovely voice that complemented Davies’s perfectly in ‘Hark! Hark! Each tree its silence breaks’. The high tenor Edward Ross delivered ‘’Tis Nature’s Voice’ with honeyed legato and a superb understanding of Purcell’s use of gesture. Purcell’s harmonies are particularly expressive in this section, and the realisation of their Affekt was truly touching; how great the contrast to the chorus, ‘Soul of the World!’.
Two brilliant oboes (Leo Duarte and Nicola Barbagli) added colour to ‘Thou turn’st this World below’, Eloise Irving here sublime; and what scoring from Purcell for ‘With that sublime Celestial Lay’ (countertenor – Mark Chambers – and two basses – Benjamin Durrant and Ben McKee with organ, indeed celebrating ‘The Noble Organ’). It was Ben Davies’s bass voice that truly shone in this performance, though, particularly in ‘Wondrous Machine!’ with its piping pair of oboes and its active bassline, while Edward Ross’s light tenor was perfect for ‘In vain the am’rous flute’ – how subtle his entries, and how well both he and bass Durrant sustained their lines at a dynamic that was surely sub-pianissimo.
The more intimate moments of Purcell’s Ode were simply superb; the overall impression though was that more bright celebration in the larger-scored movements would have provided the appropriate contrasts. Nowhere was this more marked than between ‘In vain’ and ‘The Fife and all the Harmony of War’. Christopher Bowen was a fine bass (this is sometimes heard sung by countertenor).
A rare bass duet furnishes the penultimate ‘Let those amongst themselves contest’, performed with absolutely equal ease by the two Bens of the AAM Choir (Davies and McKee) before the final chorus.
A tremendously enjoyable concert, with, for this writer at least, The Tempest as the true triumph.