ALBUM TITLE: Purcell
WORKS: England, My England: a film by Tony Palmer
PERFORMER: Simon Callow, Michael Ball, Nina Young; Susan Graham, Stephen Varcoe, Lynne Dawson, Nancy Argenta, James Bowman, Michael Chance, Paul Agnew, Peter Harvey; Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 2564 69883-2 (NTSC system; PCM stereo; 16:9 format)
A vacuum is a dangerous thing. Very little is known about the life of Henry Purcell. Undeterred, Tony Palmer with his scriptwriters Charles Wood and the late John Osborne has strode across the minefield, fearlessly and crudely juxtaposing the revolutionary unrest of the 1660s and the 1960s, rifling the diaries of Pepys and the poetry of Dryden (both caricatured in hammy performances) – and even presenting Simon Callow (aka Charles II) as modern-actor-with-girlfriend, in the company of theatre producer Bill Kenwright (as himself).
What this time-travelling fantasy has to do with the music of Henry Purcell, you will discover in the course of 153 very long minutes. As the camera pans across the years of the Plague, through executions and Pope-burning, it connives in the time-worn fallacy of linking musical affect with historical chronicle, confusing and misleading the listener. The musical performances come as some relief – though too often they are diminished by both irrelevant context and truncation. If you know and love Purcell already, you’ll be furious; if you don’t, you’ll be baffled and, at worse, misled. Hilary Finch