A French Affair: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

Much of this seemed to be the result of hasty planning of the
back-of-an-envelope kind. The influence of 17th-century French
musical manners on the English Baroque has been an oft-explored recipe, and
this snapshot of stylistic assimilation by Henry Purcell was given partial
illumination through La Nuova Musica’s choice of anthems and motets
associated with the English and French royal courts.

Matters were not helped by the printing of the entire text to Purcell’s
1690 Arise, my muse only to abandon this opulently scored music
after its opening movements without any explanation. Some joined up
thinking would have helped here, and since the work is one of Purcell’s
least performed birthday Odes, it would have been welcome to hear more of
it, especially as two uncredited trumpet players were redundant for the
rest of the evening. Musically, it was satisfying enough in the sort of way
that a film trailer leaves you wanting more, and its opening ‘Symphony’
immediately flagged up Purcell’s borrowing of the French-style overture.

Other Purcell selections included the 1685 Coronation anthem I was glad when they said unto me, curiously performed here with
just five singers (plus organ continuo). However impressive singing
one-to-a-part maybe, vocal ensembles rarely achieve perfect blend and
balance in live performance. The absence of a uniform quality aside and an
unvarying vocal weight and tempi, this festive anthem was conceived for the
choirs of Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal, so this ‘semi-skimmed’
rendition meant that any sense of ceremony and gravitas largely had to be

Purcell’s music fared better in the wonderful marriage of words and music
that is My beloved spake, one of the composer’s finest
anthem-symphonies and blest with an undeniable theatrical instinct
and youthful vitality. That said, some more joie de vivre could
have enlivened its spritely “alleluias” (where evocations of courtly French
dances didn’t quite emerge), but that’s not to ignore Nick Pritchard
mellifluous tenor depicting a flourishing fig tree or the solo group
celebrating “the voice of the turtle”.

No greater contrast could have been achieved beforehand than in the
dreamlike repetitions of Cassandra Miller’s newly commissioned work Sleepsinging here receiving its world premiere. Setting a text by
the Restoration poet Thomas Betterton, this Canadian composer draws
inspiration from two songs belonging to Purcell’s Fairy Queen and
melodic reimaginings from Christopher Lowrey and Nick Pritchard for whom
the work is written. This collaboration comprises a series of slow
descending canons (and not so subtle portamenti) given to the
string players, against which smoothly fashioned meditative vocal lines add
to its trance-like mood and culminates in a closing paragraph of rapt

More involving musically was a superb account of John Blow’s Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell forming the emotional centrepiece of
the evening. Both Lowrey and Pritchard successfully negotiated its awkward tessitura at the start and brought much
refinement to the warbling of Dryden’s Lark and Linnet, as did two merrily
chirping recorder players Sarah Humphrys and Rebecca Austen-Brown.
Throughout, this heartfelt tribute was a thoroughly absorbing affair,
whether reflective or rejoicing, voices and instruments in perfect accord.

Not so the trio of women’s voices that sang Jean Baptiste Lully’s Dixit Dominus, a devotional setting, possibly originally intended
for performance by Parisian nuns, was rendered with variously unforgiving
and woolly tone. It was, otherwise, an excellent choice not least in
underlining the dotted rhythms and expressive harmonies that Purcell would
later adopt. More persuasive was Charpentier’s extended Passion motet Le Reniement de St Pierre, a dramatic portrait of Peter’s
threefold denial of Christ to which La Nuova Musica responded with an
intensity of expression marked by strong individual characterisation and
stylish direction.

It was good to hear church music from two composers seldom heard beyond the
confines of our cathedrals. From the supposedly vain Pelham Humphrey (whom
Samuel Pepys considered ‘an absolute Monsieur’) was a
poignantly sung Like as the hart. Across the channel came Jean
Phillipe Rameau’s Lenten motet Laboravi clamans where five voices
outlined its contrapuntal manner embellished with tasteful ornamentation. The programme concluded with Rameau’s ravishing quartet Tendre amour’ from Les Indes galantes, now
glowing with some much-needed warmth.

David Truslove

La Nuova Musica: David Bates (director), Christopher Lowrey (countertenor),
Nick Pritchard (tenor)

John Blow:
Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell,Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Le reniement de St Pierre,Pelham Humfrey: Like as the hart,Jean Baptiste Lully: Dixit Dominus,Cassandra Miller: Sleepsinging, Henry Purcell: Arise, my muse, I was glad when they said
unto me, My beloved spake, Jean Phillipe Rameau: Laboravi
clamans, Les Indes galantes Tendre amour

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 23rd January 2020.

product_title=A French Affair: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by David Truslove
product_id=Above: Nick Pritchard (tenor)

Photo credit: Nick James