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Purcellian Pleasures and Pitying Angels


Within the fertile culture of Boston’s early-music scene, already saturated with niche groups, one would think that starting up “oh God, not another ensemble” might provoke blank stares from advisers and patrons. And yet we ought now to make way for this new duckling—one dedicated to Britain’s greatest composer. Also, hark: singing in English!

Last Saturday the Henry Purcell Society of Boston, founded by soprano Jessica Cooper and professed Purcellian William Chapman, presented a smashbang debut with the Cyprian Consort, mixing semi-familiar and less-heard songs by the 17th-century English composer. The packed house at All Saints Parish in Brookline, evidently comprising not just friends and family, warmly embraced the performers during the music and afterward, and the concert felt like a tremendous success.

Purcell’s music is deceptively easy to take in; to appreciate the most accessible delights one needn’t have much knowledge of the original context (songs plucked mostly from now obscure semi-operas). Indeed, the concert title “Welcome to all the pleasures” hints at the satisfaction to be derived from the composer’s melodic fecundity. As a sometimes devotee of Purcell’s soundworld, I was struck again by an appealing cleanliness to his vocal lines, which were stately but never staid—ever musical and expressive. In the program notes, co-founder Chapman describes Purcell’s music as “always textured, touching, deep, and beautiful.” I would add that Purcell challenges performers to execute with restraint rather than wallowing in emotion; he rewards simplicity.

Purcell’s “Hark how the songsters” (from his masque Timon of Athens) led off, providing a sprightly bonbon of welcome and introducing two of the brighter young stars in Boston music. In “Love in their little veins,” Cooper’s fluid, nimble soprano skirted the rafters, impeccably matching soprano Margot Rood, who marshaled striking interpretative faculties and produced a radiantly clear and expressive tone almost otherworldly in its grace and beauty. Further on in the first half, the plaintive, ecstatic laments of “Where’s Gabriel?”, as heard in Rood’s lengthy feature solo, “Tell me, some pitying angel,” provided the emotional and musical fulcrum of the evening.

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Emily Dahl, James Dargan, Reginald Mobley, and Charley Blandy perform the opening trio to Welcome to All the Pleasures. (Photo credit: Russ Anderson of T-stop Pictures)

Charles Blandy’s earnestly sweet tenor and winning sense of drama helped to carry “There’s not a swain”; countertenor Reggie Mobley’s haunting high-register precision illuminated “ ’Tis nature’s voice” (further attesting to their abilities, Mobley and Rood filled in material on short notice for a singer who had taken ill); baritone James Dargan’s commanding stage presence is matched by his supple, luxurious tone. Dargan and Mobley’s gorgeous duet “Hark! Hark! each tree” provided some of the piercing melancholy often associated with Purcell’s music.

Cyprian Consort’s instrumentalists played with tonal and expressive subtlety, providing a perfect foil to the predominantly vocal textures . Tamar Hestrin-Grader’s  harpsichord,  peeking out at choice moments, contributed attentive accompaniment. A duet for recorders, though for the most part finely played, was perhaps an odd choice to begin the second half of the concert given its formality, but the addition of strings in the final piece, “Welcome to all the pleasures,” ended the evening on a lively note. Keep an ear out for this new ensemble.

Jason McCool holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music in jazz trumpet performance and the University of Maryland in historical musicology. Formerly a music professor and arts reviewer in Washington DC, he currently is a doctoral student at BU in historical musicology.

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