Purcell: Dido and Aeneas; When Night her Purple Veil has Softly Spread

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Purcell
LABELS: BBC Legends
WORKS: Dido and Aeneas; When Night her Purple Veil has Softly Spread
PERFORMER: Claire Watson, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; Purcell Singers, Alberni String Quartet, English Opera Group Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
CATALOGUE NO: BBCB 8003-2 ADD mono/stereo
This performance of Dido and Aeneas comes from a mono BBC studio recording from 1959 that sounds rather starved of lower frequencies but is also denuded of most of its tape hiss. It’s a refreshing reminder of Britten’s qualities as an instinctive, rather than scholarly informed performer of Purcell. The edition, by Britten and Imogen Holst, has become infamous. Of course it has its bizarre aspects – not least the Hissing Song, transplanted from the semi-opera The Indian Queen. But I disagree with those who see in it as much Britten as Purcell. It remains Purcell viewed – not refracted – through, primarily, Britten’s eyes.

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As a conductor Britten’s sense of drama and pace is sure, and the cast is first rate. Peter Pears, at the height of his powers, brings some nobility to the role of Aeneas, for all the character’s gullibility. Claire Watson’s Dido combines richness and clarity in an ideal alchemy, and Jeanette Sinclair is a supportive Belinda. The voice of the Spirit is, effectively, that of a boy, John Hahessy, sexless yet knowing; less effectively so is that of the First Sailor (Michael Ronayne) in ‘Come away, fellow sailors’, sexless and unknowing.

The filler, Britten’s version with piano and two violins of When Night Her Purple Veil Has Softly Spread (actually probably the work of Purcell’s brother Daniel), heavily Romanticised by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is an appreciably more modern recording (1965) in stereo.

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The disc is of compelling historical interest, but for an up-to-date version of Dido look no further than Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music on Decca. Though again there’s a boy for the Sailor, Catherine Bott’s Dido is as irresistible as the bass David Thomas’s Sorceress. Stephen Pettitt