The Play Was The Thing For Henry Purcell, Other Restoration Composers

The British ensemble Ceruleo explores songs from the English Restoration on their new CD.

Love Restor’d: Songs from the English Restoration. Ceruleo. Music of Henry Purcell, John Blow, Francesco Corbetta, and John Eccles. Resonus RES10308 (Total time: 66:45)

DIGITAL REVIEW — In 1660, when Henry Purcell was less than a year old, Charles II was reinstated as King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. He had been in exile near Paris since 1653, when Oliver Cromwell was named Lord Protector in lieu of a monarchy. Charles II’s return and the period of Restoration that followed had an enormous impact on English music. As he grew up and developed as a composer, Purcell led the way, influenced by, but soon outdoing, his teacher John Blow in the creation of innovative, distinctly English music. In its recording Love Restor’d, the British ensemble Ceruleo examines this period, particularly the way instrumental and vocal music interacted in Restoration works of theater.

When Charles came back, the strict Puritanical rules of Cromwell’s era were relaxed. Those had included a ban on music in the theater. It’s therefore no surprise that Restoration composers like Blow and Purcell were enthusiastic about writing as much theatrical music as possible, from songs and dances meant for plays (so-called “semi-operas” that didn’t tend to have much of a plot) to Purcell’s only true opera, the masterful Dido and Aeneas.

It was a nice touch to open the album with a Blow song, “Couch’d by the pleasant Helliconian spring,” from his 1691 11-movement ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, The Glorious Day Is Come. The duet is sung with brightness and vocal flexibility by Ceruleo’s two singers, sopranos Emily Owen and Jenni Harper. The ensemble’s other members — Toby Carr on baroque guitar and theorbo, Kate Conway on viola da gamba, and Satoko Doi-Luck on harpsichord — provide continuo.

After the Blow, the sopranos immediately launch into Purcell’s “Oh, the sweet delights of love,” from the semi-opera Dioclesian (also called The Prophetess). It’s instructive to hear these two duets back to back. Although Purcell wrote his song first — Blow outlived his student by 13 years — the younger man takes his teacher’s ideas of imitative counterpoint and runs with them, alternating the texture quickly between homophony and call-and-response.

Although most of the offerings are by Purcell and Blow, there are exceptions. John Eccles (1668-1735), who knew and worked with Purcell, is represented by the aria “Haste Give Me Wings,” which Owen sings with fluid and always accurate melismas. The vocal line is made more challenging by the fact that it changes mood every few phrases, in a genre known as a mad song. This wild aria was written for The Fickle Shepherdess, a musical stage play with characters “play’d all by women,” according to the cover of the 1703 published version.

Besides a wide range of vocal music, the recording also includes some instrumental movements. Among those is a Chaconne for guitar by Francesco Corbetta (1615-1681). The Italian-born Corbetta was trained in Paris by Jean-Baptiste Lully. He was among the musicians who worked for Charles II in exile and then came with him to the English court when Charles returned to the throne. Those musicians were responsible for the fashion of adding French rhythmic and structural ideas into English music, a trend often seen in Purcell’s works. Toby Carr has a supple touch as he navigates Corbetta’s gallant tune on baroque guitar.

In Purcell’s A New Ground in E minor, ZT. 682, Conway draws a haunting, plaintive viola da gamba melody over Doi-Luck’s perpetual pattern of eighth notes. Doi-Luck plays exquisitely in the Ground from Blow’s Suite No. 2 for solo harpsichord. There are also three movements of Purcell’s Suite No. 6 in D minor for harpsichord; the Hornpipe movement is especially delightful in its shimmering energy.

Ceruleo has done a smart job of crafting a playlist with an underlying dramatic arc. It’s no accident that the jaunty hornpipe is followed by Harper singing the woeful, chromatic aria “From rosy bow’rs” from Purcell’s Don Quixote semi-opera. That solo is itself interrupted by happier, quicker sections; it’s practically a micro-opera all on its own.

Two songs in Latin give a nod to the conflicted but tenacious influence of Catholicism in 17th-century England. One is Purcell’s “O dive custos Auriacae domus” (O God, guardian of the House of Orange), written upon the death of Charles’ successor, Queen Mary II, who was raised Catholic but converted to Anglicanism. Blow’s “Laudate nomen Domini” (Praise the name of the Lord) is a setting of some verses from Psalm 134. The presence of these non-secular, non-theatrical — yet highly dramatic — works conveys the underlying theatricality of all English Restoration music.

Love Restor’d is not Ceruleo’s first Purcell project. In 2018, they toured a program called Burying the Dead, in which they imagined that Purcell was “suffering from feverish dream-like hallucinations in which the past, present and fantasy collide and his songs take on a life of their own.” The group, which has been together since 2014, has also developed programs on emotionally intense topics like Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Great Fire of London, and the concept of betrayal. This album proves that the return of an exiled king and the rekindling of censored arts make for just as fertile an area of dramatic music.