Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

COMPOSERS: Purcell
LABELS: Archiv
WORKS: Dido and Aeneas
PERFORMER: Tatiana Troyanos, Sheila Armstrong, Barry McDaniel, Patricia Johnson, Nigel Rogers; Monteverdi Choir Hamburg, North German Radio CO/Charles Mackerras
CATALOGUE NO: 447 148-2 ADD (1968)
Of the various Purcell ‘editions’ currently floating around, this one from Archiv (also available boxed: 447 147-2, E945) is both the most idiosyncratic and perhaps the most interesting. Idiosyncratic, because die contents are curiously, though in fact rather pleasingly, unbalanced — there are not one but two discs featuring the wonderful Fantasias for viols; interesting in part, at least, for providing a spectrum of 41 years of Archiv recording. The earliest disc dates from 1954 and contains August Wenzinger’s pioneering performances of the 15 Fantasias for three to seven viols. In addition, there is a selection of vocal pieces, sacred and secular, by the Saltire Singers directed by Hans Oppenheim. We neither play nor sing Baroque music in the way we used to, nearly half a century ago, but Wenzinger and the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis was one of the most important staging posts on the postwar journey of rediscovery.

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Also dating from the Fifties but less interesting from an evolutionary viewpoint is a suite of incidental music for the Restoration comedy The Married Beau. The Lucerne Festival Strings was an excellent ensemble without ever claiming authenticity as one of its aspirations. How different the case with Charles Mackerras’s Dido and Aeneasand the Cecilian ode Hail! Bright Cecilia, dating from 1968 and 1970, respectively. Mackerras was involved in many exciting Baroque ventures in this period and the performances reflect his interest in developing ideas about how to enliven 17th-and 18th-century vocal music. Tatiana Troyanos is not perhaps everyone’s ideal Dido, but she is affecting and has a musical personality which rises to her tragic predicament. Some of the supporting roles are also very well characterised, with Sheila Armstrong an appealing Belinda, Barry McDaniel a fine-sounding Aeneas, and Nigel Rogers a memorable First Sailor.

Colin Tilney’s recording of PurcelFs eight keyboard suites was made in 1979. He plays all of them on a spinet, which sounds well, though some variety of instrumental timbre would have been welcome. But even so I derived little but pleasure from this still rather undervalued side of die composer. Regrettably, the wonderfully expressive keyboard Grounds, which do not belong to die Suites, are omitted. Instead, two organ Voluntaries, played by Simon Preston, occupy filler status.

The remaining four discs call for almost unqualified commendation. Simon Preston’s andiology of Anthems, Services and Canticles was first issued in 1981 but now appears complete on CD for the first time. The conjunction of the Choir of Christ Church, Oxford, and the English Concert here proves to have been a happy one, resulting in richly satisfying performances of the verse anthems, My heart is inditingand My beloved spake, die beautiful Evening Service in G minor and much else besides. Every bit as welcome, too, is die reissue of Preston’s recording of Coronation Music for King James II. This is not, stricdy speaking, a Purcell disc, since he is but one of five composers represented. The star attractions are Purcell’s My heart is inditing, recorded anew, I was glad, and his teacher Blow’s God spake sometime in visions, with all its creative harmonies and modulations so distinctive of him and so invigorating for us.

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But the jewel in this anniversary crown is set in the odier version of Purcell’s 15 Fantasias for viols. The recording, dating from 1958, was the very first to be made by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his newly formed Vienna Concentus Musicus. Much rime and preparation went into it, and it shows. This is playing of a high order which no lover of these pieces should overlook. Clever old Archiv! The recording was in fact made and, until now, distributed by the Austrian firm of Amadeo. I hope a fair deal was negotiated. Nicholas Anderson