Relating directly to the concert to follow, musicologist Dr. Schab pointed out to the audience that all three composers represented in the concert – Henry Purcell, Daniel Purcell and John Blow – lived and composed in Restoration England. The music of Henry Purcell, it should be noted, is one of the main focuses of Alon Schab’s research interests. Schab opened his talk by filling us in on some details of British history, notably the Restoration and the Stuart period, a time characterized by constant political-religious complications, with the Protestant Church threatened by the return of Catholicism. Interestingly for those of us who enjoy this English repertoire, it was Anne of Denmark, wife of James VI and I, and, it seems, a more colorful personage than her husband, who introduced the masque – an elaborate form of entertainment involving acting, music and dance - commissioning and performing them at court. Following the execution of Charles I (1649), the Puritans, allied to the military regime headed by Oliver Cromwell, banned theatre but not singing, hence the development of opera in England. “The Siege of Rhodes”, considered to have been the first English opera, premiered in London in 1556. Consort music was performed for intellectual entertainment in the early university towns of Oxford and Cambridge, but when referring to “English music” of the time, this generally meant music in London. London was actually two cities – London and Westminster, and there was contention between them. As to the kinds of music of the time, there was music played in pubs, in the street, in private homes, in churches, in theatres and at court. As to the hierarchy of performed music, pub music was improvised, some of it quite sophisticated, some less, but it was not written down. There were different standards of house music. Much has been written about it: it often consisted of sacred and meditational music with keyboard accompaniment, the singer and accompanist sometimes being the same person. Churches preserved music in their own archives, many of which, however, were destroyed or burnt. Theatres also had archives, not all surviving. The score of Purcell’s “Fairy Queen”, a “Restoration spectacular”, written three years before Purcell’s death, was lost for 200 years, to be rediscovered only at the beginning of the 20th century. Court music, being of great importance, often carried political messages; for example, Purcell’s “Blessed are they that fear the Lord” was commissioned by James II for the Chapel Royal to celebrate his wife’s pregnancy. The text, taken from Psalm 128, was chosen both because it refers to begetting children, but, heavy with political messages, it also alluded to the desire to continue the Stuart rule. Alon Schab concluded by saying that in order to understand this or any music, it is necessary to understand the political complexity of its time.
The concert itself featured alto Avital Dery, countertenor Alon Harari, recorder players Drora Bruck and Gil Wallach, with Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra founder and musical director Dr. David Shemer at the harpsichord. The songs on the program focused largely on the subject of music. In reference to “Orpheus Britannicus”, a collection of Henry Purcell’s songs published posthumously, Henry Playford wrote that Purcell was “blessed with a peculiar genius to express the energy of English words, whereby he moved the passions of all his auditors”. The program opened with two songs of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) that talked of nature’s musicians – the birds – the first being “Hark! How the songsters” (from his masque “Timon of Athens”), a joyful, warm and well blended opener to the concert, the presence of recorders so delicate and appealing in this repertoire. Avital Dery and David Shemer then performed the famous arioso said to have been sung by Purcell himself “’Tis Nature’s Voice” (from Hail Bright Cecilia); Dery engaged in much word-painting, in the many appoggiaturas and melismatic passages, changing with each new emotion and communicating with her audience. In Harari and Shemer’s performance of “I attempt from Love’s sickness” from Purcell’s semi-opera “The Indian Queen”, Harari’s lightness and transparency of sound allowed the piece’s irony and wit to emerge naturally, reflecting its message of the futility of trying to escape one’s desires. As to “Strike the Viol” from “Come Ye Sons of Art” (1694), written for alto, two treble recorders and through-bass, here performed by both singers and all three instrumentalists, what could be heartier and more uplifting than this perfectly crafted gem, with its melodious and dance-like sweep and the charm of its dainty recorder utterances!
As to the instrumental content of the program, we heard Trio Sonata in d minor for two recorders and basso continuo by Daniel Purcell (1664-1717). An organist and prolific composer, Henry Purcell’s younger brother has not enjoyed enough credit on the concert platform. A work of short movements, it was given a sympathetic and cantabile reading by the artists, its moods and dissonances addressed, their playing offering some tasteful embellishments. From “A Choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord or Spinnet” (1696), the first volume of English keyboard works by one composer, David Shemer performed Henry Purcell’s Harpsichord Suite in g minor, issuing it in with a fluid, imitative Prelude. Preserving the noble mood of the suite’s minor mode, Shemer’s playing was ornamented, highlighting its small dissonant surprises.
The program ended with “An Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell” (1696) by John Blow (1649-1708). There could have been no more fitting memorial to Henry Purcell than this fine setting of Dryden’s “Hark how the Lark and Linnet Sing” scored originally for two countertenors, two recorders and thoroughbass, this work being one of Blow’s greatest masterpieces and a major work of the Restoration. It is also Blow’s most Purcellian, with the choice of two countertenor roles as well as the use of recorders which evoke a funereal tone and a sense of the other-worldly. Purcell had been a student of Blow as a boy at the Chapel Royal and also later, then succeeding him as organist at Westminster Abbey. Both musicians benefited from the long association. Early death at that time was commonplace, but here Blow and Dryden are deploring the catastrophe of losing a friend and one of England’s greatest composers. Dryden’s poem begins by mentioning the singing of birds, but contends that their music is no challenge to Purcell. It ends with crediting heaven for Purcell’s music. The artists gave a satisfying performance of this major and challenging work, its course characterized by mournful and celebratory moments and colored with curious, unpredictable shifts of harmony.
‘The Heavenly Choir, who heard his notes from high
Let down the Scale of Musick from the sky:
They handed him along,
And all the way He taught, and all the way they sung.’