Purcell’s lyricism and wit shine in colorful Handel and Haydn program

January 26, 2013 at 4:21 pm

By David Wright

Harry Christophers led the Handel and Haydn Society in an all-Purcell program Friday night at Jordan Hall.

First of all, Mr. Public Radio Announcer, it’s PUR-s’ll, not pur-SELL.

The indignity of having his name mispronounced all week was a symptom of Henry Purcell’s low estate in today’s concert culture, a situation briefly but splendidly remedied Friday night at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall by Harry Christophers, the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus, and vocal soloists.

Christophers led zesty and colorful performances of stage music by his seventeenth-century countryman, considered by some to be the greatest composer England has ever produced.  For the many people who know Purcell only from the striking theme of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, this concert would have opened a book of wonders.

Purcell’s genius doesn’t stun the senses like Berlioz or awe the mind like Bach.  It creeps by upon the waters, so to speak, sometimes graceful, sometimes jolly and “homely” (in that very English sense), always ready to startle the listener with a sudden insight into the human spirit.

The “dramatick operas” that Purcell created with poets such as Nahum Tate and John Dryden are not operas in the usual sense, nor masques, nor plays with incidental music, but have elements of all three.  This ambiguity about who should perform them, and where, in our current performing-arts establishment is one reason this music isn’t better known.

In fact, even in this excellent presentation by Christophers and his musicians, the music sometimes felt fragmentary and out of its element. Purcell’s contributions to the drama function mainly as allegorical divertissements and commentaries, and the play’s main characters don’t appear in them.  In a concert, they can come off as a series of sideshows, with the main event missing.

That was not a problem in the first half of Friday’s concert, which presented three set pieces, each from a different stage work, and each a vivid little scene of its own.  But the evening’s featured item, Purcell’s complete music for The Indian Queen, proved a little hard to follow, detached as it was from the action of the drama.

The concert began with its comic relief, the “Scene of the Drunken Poet” from The Fairy Queen.  In this 1692 adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a poet who’s had one too many (said to be a caricature of an actual poet in Purcell’s circle) stumbles into Titania’s kingdom, where the fairies playfully tease and torment him before leading him away to sleep it off.

As the Poet, bass-baritone Jonathan Best made a, um, spectacular debut with this ensemble, singing Purcell’s stammering music right on pitch while wobbling physically and vocally all over the place.  Sopranos Margot Rood and Erika Vogel were the pert and sparkling-toned fairies, and the chorus capped the droll, Falstaffian scene by singing the poet off with a tender lullaby.

The evening’s program was all Purcell, but not all one composer.  Henry’s younger brother Daniel put in an appearance with “The Masque of Hymen,” composed after Henry’s death for the nuptial celebration in the last act of The Indian Queen.  Daniel shared with his brother a sophisticated upbringing, musical training in the Chapel Royal, career opportunities, and even quite a bit of DNA—and yet, not to take anything away from the charm and skill of Daniel’s music, including it here served to sharpen one’s appreciation of Henry’s unique genius.

Bass-baritone Best returned, thankfully in sound voice this time, as an authoritative god Hymen, joined by the evening’s other guest artist (also making his Handel and Haydn debut), tenor Zachary Wilder, who sounded suitably clear-toned and well-projected as a herald of Cupid in “Sound, sound the trumpet.”  Choristers also stepped forward for well-sung comic turns: a married couple (soprano Sonja Tengblad and tenor Woodrow Bynum) in a wry duet and two warriors (tenors Bradford Gleim and Donald Wilkinson) looking to “Make haste to put on Love’s chains.”

That fellow Cupid gets around, warming up even the most icebound places on Earth, as depicted in the “Frost Scene” from Dryden’s and Purcell’s King Arthur.  Soprano Tengblad as the god was animated and bell-toned as she summoned the wintry spirit Cold Genius from under the frozen ground.  In that role, Best was again stammering and half paralyzed—this time from cold, not drink—but managed to join Cupid and a “Chorus of Cold People” in a hymn to love’s warmth.

Along the way, Cupid’s song “’Tis I, ‘tis I,” with its snap rhythms, was a reminder of Purcell’s intimate familiarity, much remarked on in his time and after, with the musical possibilities of the English language.  And one wonders if Vivaldi was familiar with this scene’s shivering, staccato string accompaniment, so similar to the “Winter” concerto he composed a generation later.

For The Indian Queen, the program kindly provided a character list and detailed synopsis of Dryden’s and Sir Robert Howard’s drama, with its ancient Peruvian and Mexican kings, queens, generals, usurpers and lovers.  It was all very interesting, but since none of it was being enacted onstage it became more of a distraction than an enhancement to the concert.

It was better, on balance, to forget about the play’s action and focus on Purcell’s meditations on human nature and fate.  The orchestra, which had framed all the previous scenes with garlands of expressive and well-contrasted dances, now held the stage for long stretches, so one could fully appreciate the expressive interplay of strings with winds, of high strings with low ones, and of Bruce Hall’s gleaming Baroque trumpet adding its highlight to the mix.  Hall also excelled in his expressive solos and dialogues with singers.

The sung part of the drama consisted of four sections: a prologue for an Indian boy and girl foreseeing a conquest that will end their contented life, a dialogue between Fame and Envy, a scene for a priest invoking spirits for augury, and another scene for a priest preparing a human sacrifice.

Tenor Wilder and soprano Jessica Cooper sang melodiously and wistfully as the Indian boy and girl, though somewhat out of balance, perhaps owing to Cooper’s substituting at the last minute for another singer.  Best, the bass-baritone, put in three strong turns as Envy (hissing amusingly with two snaky henchmen, tenors Stefan Reed and Marcio De Oliveira), the priest Ismeron, and the sacrificial high priest.  Wilder took his trumpet out again as Fame, singing the praises of the usurping queen Zempoalla.

The concert ended on a bit of a down note, as priest and chorus darkly contemplated the approaching sacrifice.  But one had to admit that the actual ending of The Indian Queen, Daniel Purcell’s comedic “Hymen Masque,” was better off heard earlier in the program.

During the enthusiastic applause at the end, the chorus on risers at the back of the stage looked rather depleted, since about half its number were out in front receiving acknowledgement of their solo turns.  Given the high caliber of the chorus’s work throughout the evening, one suspects that the singers in the back and those in front could have changed places without any loss in the quality of the performance.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University.  handelandhaydn.org; 617-266-3605.

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One Response to “Purcell’s lyricism and wit shine in colorful Handel and Haydn program”

  1. Posted Jan 28, 2013 at 9:06 am by Paul Wart

    A good review.Perhaps not enough praise for Sir Harry who has brought remarkable clarity and comprehension to H&H. A few contrary views: I gather Mr Best,overall superb, was acting in the drinking song ; our reviewer doth protest too much.I believe he misses that one of the principal male voices was, at best,if not perhaps out of his league,having an off night in terms of phrasing and expressive range. Too bad, such weakness in a couple of the vocalists accounted perhaps for no standing ovationer at all on Sunday.