Seventeenth-century music has been in vogue for some time among early-music specialists, and virtuoso instrumental pieces from early-Baroque Italy, not to mention operas by Monteverdi and Cavalli, have received particular attention, not least from the Boston Early Music Festival, a co-sponsor with the Celebrity Series of Boston of Sunday’s performance (Oct. 23) by The English Concert. The London-based period-instrument chamber orchestra, directed by Harry Bicket, who also played harpsichord and organ, was joined by German falsetto singer Andreas Scholl in a program of music from the late seventeenth century, mostly by the English composer Henry Purcell.
Purcell’s music is less obviously attention-grabbing than that of his Italian predecessors, but it is on the whole more finely crafted and harmonically more adventurous. It has long been popular with local early-music enthusiasts, although I suspect that its appeal for much of Sunday’s audience lay more in nostalgia than in anything exceptional that was actually heard. The program consisted largely of old chestnuts, performed in a manner that was surprisingly old-fashioned in certain ways, despite the incorporation of a few “new” early-music touches.
The English Concert has never been known as an innovator in the early-music world. Founded and for many years directed by harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock, the ensemble was led for just a few years by the sometimes outlandishly imaginative violin virtuoso Andrew Manze before Bicket took over in 2007. Pinnock was not a practicing musicologist in the way Christopher Hogwood, for example, has been. The English Concert made its name more through solid performances of late-Baroque favorites than by exploring sometimes unfamiliar music and performing practices, as Hogwood did as music director of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society. Bicket appears to be continuing in Pinnock’s tradition.
Sunday’s program was intelligently constructed. Each half comprised excerpts from one of Purcell’s major vocal works, preceded by an instrumental piece by one of his German contemporaries. The main works were King Arthur and The Fairy Queen, prime examples of a type of late-seventeenth-century English drama (“semi-opera”) that gets low marks from Shakespeare scholars — The Fairy Queen is a free adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — but whose entertaining masque scenes and colorful minor characters inspired Purcell to write some wonderful music.
One example is the famous “Cold” scene from King Arthur, sung by an allegorical divinity whose power to freeze the earth ends when Cupid magically raises him up to the surface from underground. In the original work, the Cold Genius is a comic bass. Scholl’s greatest strength lies in his engaging stage presence; here his theatrical sense was clear (despite the absence of any actual staging) in his gestures and in a convincing half singing, half stage-whisper delivery, voice and strings together providing a musical depiction of quiet shivering. But this simply is not a role for an alto falsetto singer, nor did the one-on-a-part band of two violins, viola, and basso continuo (more on that in a moment) convey the effect of Purcell’s music, which is grave and funny at the same time. This performance was merely peculiar, the violins at times producing quiet buzzing sounds rather than clear pitches. Local audiences saw the scene done more convincingly when BEMF staged King Arthur in a memorable 1995 performance.
Of course this was a concert, not a theatrical production. Scholl’s unselfish approach as soloist was evident in his willingness to remain onstage, seated, during the many instrumental selections. These included some of the most famous music from both Purcell works. I was most impressed, however, by the playing in the Passacaglia from Sonata V in Georg Muffat’s Armonico Tributo of 1682. Long enough to stand on its own, this movement is almost as much an early-music standard as the Purcell selections, having been recorded already in the early 1960s by Nikolaus Harononcourt and the Concentus Musicus Vienna.
Like Harnoncourt in that pioneering venture, The English Concert opted most of the time for a smooth, legato approach to this grand, imposing piece. But the ensemble played with greater attention to Muffat’s sophisticated phrasing and chromatic harmony, especially in an expressive minor-key section. And it produced an impressive effect in a passage near the middle of the piece, where the flowing music of the opening, played on Sunday by first violinist Matthew Truscott, returns to a more energetic, heavily accented accompaniment in the lower strings. The effect is almost reminiscent of music by the contemporary American composer Elliott Carter in juxtaposing two so different styles of rhythm and articulation.
On the whole, however, The English Concert played with a sweet, singing sound of the type favored by “modern” (as opposed to “period”) players, without the sharper articulation that characterizes a number of the more youthful early-music ensembles today. This was in line with Scholl’s approach to the vocal numbers, which was equally smooth, at times also understated. By and large, this approach was appropriate to the vocal selections. These tended toward the contemplative, avoiding anything showy or virtuoso, although Scholl showed himself perfectly capable of clearly articulated coloratura at moments in his opening “Sweeter than roses.” Even here, however, a bit more fire might have been expected, such as I recall in the wonderful recording made by the American singer Russell Oberlin more than half a century ago.
Oberlin, however, was not a falsettist, rather a very high tenor. This raises a somewhat touchy issue, for Scholl’s designation as a “countertenor” is in fact a misnomer. The word, although now generally used to refer to an adult male falsetto singer, originally meant something quite different (as explained in notes by Scott Metcalfe for a recent Blue Heron concert, online here). The English singer Alfred Deller popularized the current usage during the mid-twentieth century, becoming particularly famous for his singing of Purcell’s songs, which probably were not meant for falsetto singers.
I mention this because listeners at this concert could be forgiven for supposing that a performance by an alto falsettist and a “period orchestra” might bear a reasonable similarity to something Purcell and his audiences could have heard. But the theatrical songs that dominated Sunday’s concert are especially unlikely to have been sung regularly by falsetto singers, least of all ones with voices as delicate as Scholl’s, which at times was barely audible over the small instrumental ensemble. Neither were the instruments all particularly close to those Purcell and his contemporaries knew, nor were they always used as would have been expected at the time.
Nobody claimed any sort of historical authenticity for Sunday’s performance, and of course authenticity is an entirely separate issue from musical quality. Still, I found it incongruous to hear the song “Strike the viol” — a generous addition to the pieces listed in the program —performed with neither the viola da gamba nor the lute mentioned in the song’s text (by Nahum Tate). We did see, and occasionally hear, a large lute or theorbo in several numbers on the first half, played sensitively by William Carter. But in “Strike the viol” and indeed the entire second half, he took up the Baroque guitar, and in most pieces the basso continuo accompaniment also included cello. Neither instrument, ubiquitous in today’s Baroque bands, is likely to have been much heard in seventeenth-century England.
In Purcell’s day the cello was a recent invention, still largely confined to Italy, where it was used more as a solo than a continuo instrument. Joseph Crouch took the trouble to play it more or less in a way that is documented in some historical sources: standing while resting the instrument on a piano bench. This was unobjectionable, especially in view of his sensitive playing, even if still clearly that of a cellist rather than a subtler viola da gambist. Less welcome, to these ears, was the now-fashionable inclusion of a guitar in many numbers. That instrument, whose Baroque versions were quite different from those familiar today, was certainly used by Purcell’s contemporaries, but probably more often for solo pieces and to accompany quiet chamber music than to constitute a sort of rhythm section in bands like this one.
I was glad that the “double bass” listed in the program, played by Peter McCarthy, turned out in fact to be a six-string violone playing at concert pitch (not an octave lower, like the modern double bass). But too often Bicket had it played pizzicato, plucked rather than bowed, while the cello was played normally. A similar combination of half-bowed, half-plucked bass lines was sometimes adopted by twentieth-century orchestral conductors, who perhaps thought it would convey the impression of a lute or of a harpsichord joining the orchestra. Such an effect hardly seems necessary when those instruments are actually present onstage.
The two trumpets heard in several numbers raise further issues. Mark Bennett was an able soloist in the opening work, an early Sonata in Six Parts by the Austrian composer Heinrich Biber. Biber would publish far more imaginative pieces a few years later in his 1676 Sonatae, likewise for trumpets and strings. Bennett’s instrument was the type of pseudo-Baroque trumpet heard regularly today. Like the real Baroque instrument, it lacks valves, but it is equipped with so-called vent holes that apparently make it easier to play for musicians accustomed to modern trumpets.
This is another sensitive issue; nobody likes to be told that their voice or instrument is not what it is claimed to be. To be fair, the expression “Baroque trumpet” appeared nowhere in the program, but from a distance the instrument certainly looks like the magnificent Nuremberg trumpets from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that can be seen in museum collections in New York, Vermillion, and elsewhere (but not, alas, in Boston). The usual rejoinder is that the small compromises made here or there, with respect to copying a historical original instrument, serve only to make it easier to perform creatively. But at what point does convenience for the musician get in the way of rediscovering some musical effect that could be produced only through a closer approximation of something original?
My impression here, as in other performances using modernized instruments, is that the latter encourage performers to smooth out the edges, making the playing more facile but less interesting. The rather pedestrian Biber piece made a brilliant effect, thanks to its opulent scoring, but the most engaging playing in it was in a solo for (surprisingly) the second violinist Walter Reiter.
Purcell provided more interesting music for the trumpet, particularly in a “symphony” or instrumental interlude from Act 5 of King Arthur. Here Bennett was joined by violinist Truscott and oboist Katharina Spreckelsen. But I was not convinced that the players, scattered across the Jordan Hall stage, were always aware of the full expansiveness of Purcell’s long-spanning melodic lines. Nor did they coordinate with sufficient elasticity what should have been the supple interlocking fioratura of the three parts in this unusually scored Italianate movement.
Here at least Bicket was content to observe what was probably Purcell’s intended instrumentation. All too often, however, clever but unnecessary manipulations of the scoring, especially in the vocal numbers, distracted from the singing and from Purcell’s music. The result was frequently in effect an arrangement of what Purcell wrote, sometimes with fussy changes of instrument every few seconds. Purcell’s music is full of subtly asymmetrical phrases and expressive little harmonic twists and turns, and these might have received more of the attention that was instead devoted to improving his instrumentation.
This re-instrumentation or orchestration particularly affected the instruments of the basso continuo: those playing the bass line (cello, bassoon, violone) together with those adding improvised chords (guitar, lute, keyboards). It was diverting to see Bicket shifting from harpsichord to organ between verses of one or two songs, and the changes could always be related to something in the words. But, given Purcell’s inventive music, the compulsive variation in sound is as unnecessary and anachronistic as the silly stage business that directors too often impose on singers in present-day performances of Baroque opera. Both practices attract attention to the director and away from the music.
The nadir of this approach came with the addition of a tambourine (played by trumpeter Bennett) to several dance movements that had no need for the distracting jingle. In the “Dance for the Followers of Night” from The Fairy Queen, the tambourine helped prevent anyone from hearing the beautiful but quirky double canon (a sort of round) that Purcell incorporated into this piece. Such music does not need artificially imposed color of this sort.
The rescoring of Baroque classics was common in the early twentieth century, when composers and conductors like Respighi and Stokowski became interested in popularizing early music. It went out of fashion during the 1960s, but it has come back as performers have realized that the austerity seemingly dictated by some historical sources is not necessarily the only way to perform this music. Adding oboes to Purcell’s string orchestra in King Arthur, as Bicket did, is perfectly effective, and may well even be historically authentic. The oboe was another recent invention in 1691, but one that had probably already been brought to London from Paris, and for good reason. One might have considered adding oboes in Muffat’s Passacaglia as well. But having the harpsichord drop in and out of the song “If music be the food of love” was merely obtrusive and made it even harder to hear the singing.
Perhaps, however, some of this clever re-instrumentation was necessary. For Scholl’s singing, although often beautiful, failed by itself to project all the variety of expression in Purcell’s songs. When Dryden’s poem in “Music for a while” mentions the mythological fury Alecto, it was the continuo instruments, not Scholl, who hardened the music into something representative of the snakes that “drop from her head.” Nor did I hear a single trill or other ornament in the singing — a serious omission, when trills and other “graces,” as Purcell called them, are an essential expressive element in this music. It was as if a pianist were to play Chopin without using the damper pedal. When Scholl repeated “Music for a while” as an encore piece, I did not detect one departure from the way it had been first performed — which for a Baroque singer, like a jazz musician today, shows at the very least a failure of the imagination if not of nerve.
None of this is to deny that Sunday’s concert included some excellent playing and singing. Scholl reached some lovely high notes in the long air “O Solitude,” even if I am not sure that he, any more than the players in the “symphony,” quite succeeded in projecting the extraordinary character of Purcell’s sometimes soaring, sometimes plunging melodic line. The song “An Evening Hymn” was very well suited to his voice and general approach, and the famous “Dido’s Lament” (from the opera Dido and Aeneas) was sustained remarkably well, given the very slow tempo at which it was taken, even if it was over-conducted. But this was not the only number in which Bicket might have played the harpsichord more demonstratively rather than waving his arms ostenatiously while seated at the instrument. To be sure, his predecessor Pinnock was one of those who helped make this an accepted practice for star harpsichordist-directors.
All in all, then, this was a perfectly acceptable replaying of quite a lot of familiar music, together with one welcome if disappointing “new” piece by Biber. The Celebrity Series and BEMF deserve thanks for providing a program booklet that included thorough notes by Richard E. Rodda, although the account of Dido and Aeneas as a work of 1689 needs to be revised in the light of recent scholarship. It might have been helpful, too, to have pointed out how many of the selections, besides Dido’s Lament, were variations on simple harmonic schemes or “grounds” (a favorite device of Purcell’s): not only the three instrumental chaconnes or passacaglias but also the songs “O Solitude” and “Music for a while,” plus substantial portions of the Biber work.
David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach. He teaches at Wagner College in New York City. His website is here.