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Welcome to Henry’s World

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Henry Purcell

Just the title “The World of Henry Purcell,” for Aston Magna’s concert at Time & Space Ltd. in Hudson on Friday, was more than enough to lure me out of my lair. Of course it’s overambitious to attempt such a survey in one evening. Purcell’s gratifyingly large output (especially for a composer who died at 36) includes orchestral and choral works beyond the scope of Aston Magna’s four singers and five instrumentalists. Still, AM’s director Daniel Stepner arranged a varied selection of representative Purcell, enough to convince anyone who didn’t already know that he is one of the great composers of the Baroque era.

Purcell wrote 22 trio sonatas. Sonata V from the Sonatas in Four Parts is typical in how in a sequence of brief movements, one can sometimes one lead directly into the next—all of them ingenious and beautiful. The players gave us an expressive performance, very well balanced. Most of the music in the remainder of the first part,  “Purcell on the Vicissitudes of Love,”  came from the “semi-operas” (Stepner’s term) The Fairy Queen, King Arthur, The Indian Queen, and Don Quixote. We’d usually call them plays with music. These pieces were generally light hearted and sometimes quite funny. It was a mistake to work the final scenes from Dido and Aeneas into this sequence, though. Dido is a great tragic opera, and Dido’s famous lament is one of the most beautiful and moving arias in the entire history of opera. Deborah Rentz-Moore’s singing left me in tears, which a return to comedy too quickly dispersed. But all the singers did their work well, the small band accompanying them with alertness and, again, good balance.

After intermission, harpsichordist Michael Sponseller played the Suite in F Major, whose concluding “Round O” Britten used for his famous variations. I loved Sponseller’s vigor and animation, and he included all the repeats and embellishments I want. The show concluded with more excerpts from The Fairy Queen—mostly Purcell-lite, but excellent. The “choral” finale to “Hush, no more,” with the singers’ amazing dynamic range, all the way down to a well-balanced whisper, was really striking.

The attendance at TSL was pretty good, not enough to fill the hall, but certainly much better than the last two seasons at Bard College. I feel sorry for the music lovers who missed out on this, especially the ones who still need to be introduced to Purcell. It remains only for me to thank the excellent individuals: soprano Kristen Watson, mezzo-soprano Rentz-Moore, tenor Jason McStoots (quite a sense of comedy in him), baritone David McFerrin, violinists Stepner and Julie Leven, viola da gambist Laura Jeppesen (as usual a great pleasure to watch in action), theorboist  Catherine Liddell, and Sponseller.  I’m grateful to all of them.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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  1. Thanks for this very on-target review. I’d add that the singers did a great job of acting in several of the selections as well, bringing the songs alive with a light touch.

    What would it take to bring these concerts to a more central location? I wasn’t the only one who schlepped there and back via commuter rail, but it’s a tough sell.

    Comment by Jay — July 21, 2019 at 7:53 pm

  2. Thank you, Leslie, for your kind words. Programming this program was as delightful puzzle, given Purcell’s many takes on relations between human partners. I felt I didn’t want to leave the audience with the tragic ending of Dido, though I agree the the affect is so strong it is a challenge to find something to follow it. It seemed to me that comic relief was the only possibility, and since the preceding segments were comical, it felt logical to return to that mood, which however was tempered by the adult compromises that are made between the protagonists in the duos that followed Dido’s Lament. Purcell himself softened the high tragedy of Dido’s lament with the valedictory “With Drooping Wings” sung after Dido’s demise.

    The term “semi-opera” was coined by Roger North in the 18th century (Dryden called them “dramatic operas,” and I remember Christopher Hogwood using the term semi-opera often when referring to British musical theater of the 17th and 18th centuries. I think there’s a slight difference between that hybrid form and the simpler “plays with music” you refer to, and it’s perhaps just a question of quantity. The later semi-operas of Purcell had a great deal of music, dance and spectacle (emerging from courtly masques), and the play itself was drastically cut-down (e.g. “The Fairy Queen” was a pale shadow of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with added characters and irrelevant (non-Shakespearean) vocal texts. Plays with music were dramas with a few inserted songs. Purcell wrote for these, too.

    Dan Stepner

    Comment by Daniel Stepner — July 22, 2019 at 9:16 am

  3. Yes, we too were dismayed by the placement of Dido’s lament within otherwise light fare. It is always thrilling to hear it sung live, especially considering how well it was sung Thursday last at Brandeis, but it is profound. It deserves to be a climax,not an interlude.

    Comment by Jerry — July 24, 2019 at 8:01 pm

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