Henry Purcell: A Retrospective

Over half of the works presented were selected from the
‘Gresham Manuscript’, a book of songs mostly scribed by Purcell’s own
hand which was compiled between 1692 and 1695.

A facsimile of the manuscript was published in 1995, Purcell’s
tercentenary year; as its editors, Margaret Laurie and Robert Thompson, explain
in their Introduction: ‘The purpose of the book is not clear, some believe
that it was for Purcell’s own use as a singer, while others hypothesize that
it was a “pupil’s” volume.’ In his interesting programme article,
Andrew Pinnock notes recent research by Thompson that suggests that the Gresham
manuscript was copied for Purcell’s pupil, Lady Annabella Howard, maid of
honour to Princess (later Queen) Anne; the latter was an accomplished
harpsichord and guitar player, and Annabella would have been expected to
entertain the princess and perform alongside her. Pinnock suggests that the
manuscript is ‘an idiosyncratic anthology reflecting Annabella Howard’s
musical personality, allowing her to display her skills in performance and
providing practice material of the highest imaginable quality’.

The Gresham manuscript contains the opening six items from Purcell’s
The Fairy-Queen, which Princess Anne saw in Dorset Garden theatre in
1692; and it was with three numbers from this semi-opera that the recital
began. ‘Come all ye songsters’ is a light dance for Titania’s revelling
fairies, and Sampson’s pristine brightness and open sound affectionately
evoked the sprites’ joyful merry-making. The busy accompanying textures of
Elizabeth Kenny’s lute, Jonathan Manson’s bass viol and Laurence
Cummings’ harpsichord added to the high spirits. In the instrumental playout
of ‘Sing while we trip it’ each of the three accompaniments took primacy in
turn, courteously passing on the musical baton with the courtly decorum
suggested by the text, ‘Sing while we trip it upon the green; … Nothing
offend our fairy Queen’. Sampson spun beautiful melodic arcs in ‘Ye gentle
spirits of the air’, and the sunny repetitions of ‘appear, appear’
together with an enticing melisma, ‘Prepare’, would sure have tempted the
spirits to ‘join your tender voices here’. The soprano demonstrated a
relaxed flexibility and a warm lower voice, while her upper range carried

The sparser accompaniment offered by Kenny’s lone theorbo highlighted the
decorative melodic shapes of the opening lines of ‘The cares of lovers’
(from Timothy of Athens). Sampson summoned a vocal rhetoric to
complement the subtle oppositions of major/minor tonalities, and was able to
draw upon her varied palette of hues and excellent breath control to convey the
erotic inferences of the text, ‘So soft, so gentle is their pain, ’Tis even
a pleasure to complain.’ The vocal passagework and scuttling accompaniment at
the start of ‘Fly swift, ye hours’ was clean and precise; but as the song
expanded into a ‘mini-cantata’, Sampson deepened the dramatic intensity,
bringing fervency to the poet’s plea to ‘Bring back my Belvidera’. The
arioso section ‘Swifter than Time’ had a sweet lilt, but the recitative,
‘Soft peace is banish’d’, summoned great anguish. Sampson’s unhurried
chromatic falls were perfectly tuned and the languid melismas exquisitely
sighed. The sinking register of the final line evoked the poignancy of the
poet’s pain as he ‘embrace[s] my chain’.

The florid anger of ‘Not all my torments’ shook us from our quiet
reflections, while ‘From rosy bow’rs (from Don Quixote) thrilled
with its unpredictability, sudden injections of pace and colour conjuring the
cunning, feigned madness of Altsidora who tries, by presenting herself as a
woman possessed by a frenzied passion, to lure Don Quixote from his beloved
Dulcinea. Again, Sampson exercised masterly control over the song’s
changeable rhetoric, by turns still then driven, accelerating towards the close
with wild excitement. After the interval, ‘Let the dreadful Engines of
Eternal Will’ from the same work similarly confirmed the soprano’s innate,
well-judged theatricality, as she convincingly embraced the declamatory freedom
of the music which shifts between arioso and recitative, intensifying the
harmonic twists which evoke the mood swings of Cardenio, who has been deserted
by Luscinda.

The light leaps of ‘I see she flies me’ ran on into the lamenting sighs
of ‘What a sad fate is mine’. The ground bass of the latter was
hypnotically entrancing, enhanced by delicate ornamentation and wonderfully
expressive of the forsaken poet’s dilemma: ‘’Tis all I implore,/ To make
me love less,/ Or her to love more.’ In ‘’Tis Nature’s Voice’ (from
Hail, Bright Cecilia) Sampson showed how she could deepen the weight
of her lower register and she used the chromatic contortions of the melismatic
vocal line to express the power of the ‘mighty Art’ of music which
‘charms the Sense and captivates the Mind’. ‘Lucinda is bewitching
fair’ (from Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge) was free and full of
declamatory vigour.

Instrumental pieces were interspersed between the vocal items. Purcell’s C
major harpsichord suite was played by Cummings with delicate restraint: the
initial simple-two part textures were lucid, while the bass line in subsequent
more complex movements was used effectively to provide direction, and there
were some engaging rhythmic emphases in the concluding jig. Kenny alternated
dryness and richness in numbers from Princess Anne’s guitar book. And, there
was music from Purcell’s contemporaries too: Giovanni Battista Draghi’s
‘Italian Ground’ was impressively played by Jonathan Manson, his bass viol
strumming airily then crooning melodiously, while Kenny sustained the upper
line of Francesco Corbetta’s Passacaille with salient limpidity.

We ended where we began, with The Fairy Queen, as Sampson entreated
us to harken the ‘echoing air’. The text, as with many of these songs, is
fairly mundane: ‘Hark! hark, the ech’ing air a triumph sings,/ And all
around, pleased Cupids clap their wings.’ But, Purcell was equally inspired
whether setting the words of the greatest poets of the day — Dryden, Congreve
— or a banal ditty. Sampson sometimes promoted the beauty of sound and grace
of line over the clarity of the text: for example, the consonants were lost in
the rapid repetitions and scotch-snaps of ‘Sing while we trip it’, and
blurred by the assonance of ‘Let the dreadful Engines’ — frequently I
found myself having to follow or check the text in the programme.

But, an occasional clouding of the diction did not make this recital any
less beguiling, and the bewitchment continued beyond the concluding song of the
programme, with two encores — ‘I attempt from love’s sickness’ and
‘Fairest Isle’ — of artless magic.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Elizabeth Kenny, lute; Jonathan Manson,
bass viol; Laurence Cummings, harpsichord. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday
17th March 2015.

Henry Purcell — The Fairy Queen : ‘Come all ye songsters of the sky’,
‘Sing while we trip it on the green’, ‘Ye gentle spirits of the air
appear’; The History of Timon of Athens: ‘The cares of lovers’;
‘Fly swift, ye hours’; ‘Not all my torments can your pity move’;
The Comical History of Don Quixote: ‘From rosy bow’rs’, ‘Let the
dreadful engines’; Aureng-Zebe, or The Great Mogul: ‘I see she
flies me’; ‘What a sad fate is mine’; ‘Pious Celinda goes to
prayers’; ‘Hail, bright Cecilia’; ‘’Tis Nature’s Voice; thro’ all the
moving Wood’; Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge: ‘Lucinda is
bewitching fair’; The Fairy Queen: ‘Hark the ech’ing air!’

image_description=Carolyn Sampson
product_title=Henry Purcell: A Retrospective — Come All Ye Songsters
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Carolyn Sampson