Purcell songs, in arrangements by Benjamin Britten

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COMPOSERS: Henry Purcell (arranged Benjamin Britten)
LABELS: Champs Hill Records
WORKS: Odes and Elegies; Turn then thine eyes; Mad Bess; Hark the echoing air!; I attempt from love’s sickness to fly; How blest are the shepherds; Let the dreadful engines of eternal will; Though yet the feast is only sound; Fairest Isle, etc
PERFORMER: Robin Blaze (countertenor), Ruby Hughes (soprano), Anna Grevelius (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Benedict Nelson (baritone), Matthew Rose (bass); Joseph Middleton (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: Champs Hill Records CHRCD 106


So accustomed have we become to hearing Purcell’s songs accompanied by harpsichord and theorbo that Britten’s piano arrangements seem almost transgressive in their weight and flamboyance. Pianist Joseph Middleton’s double-disc survey runs from the simple strophic charms of The Knotting Song (1939), sung by countertenor Robin Blaze, to the vertigo-inducing, wide-spaced chords of O Solitude (1955), sung by soprano Ruby Hughes, the (ironically) Brahmsian swell of Music for a While (1947), sung by tenor Allan Clayton, and the titanic rage of Let the dreadful engines of eternal will (1971), sung by bass Matthew Rose. Together with mezzo-soprano Anna Grevelius and baritone Benedict Nelson the singers steer a convincing stylistic course, balancing the sometimes contradictory demands of the source material and the arrangement.

Britten’s impulse was to decorate. The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation (1947) features roiling bass figures on the word ‘tigers’, and frilly broken chords on ‘little feet’. Arranged in the same year, Lord, what is man? is similarly furnished with pianistic swag and tassels. It’s exciting but exhausting, and as gaudily tailored to mid-20th century taste as is the sharp rondeau from Abdelazar in A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Some of the declamatory singing is forced into blowsiness as a result of the bulking out of bass line and harmony. Yet the expressivity of Clayton’s In the black dismal dungeon of despair (1960), Grevelius’s Mad Bess (1948), and Hughes and Rose’s No, resistance is but vain (1961) is impressive, and Middleton’s playing is precisely coloured and characterised.


Anna Picard